Sometimes, in a catastrophe, little things take on unreasonable importance. Six months into the slow-motion avalanche of COVID, I find myself superstitiously looking for signs that life will go on, no matter what, like the tiny sprout of green in WALL·E .
They have been few on the ground, this wretched semi-summer, so I may be over-reacting to faint signs that the permanent shuttering of the Bavarian Meats shop in the Pike Place Market may not mean the loss of one of our most rooted cultural institutions.
Yes, cultural. Bavarian launched in 1961, just in time to ride the World’s Fair wave into the affections of the city. It has never been “just another deli”; it was a living time-capsule, a place where one could be certain of finding an astonishing array of basics from the Central European gastrosphere: hundreds of years worth of traditional Feinkostmetzgerei including:
- Jägerwürste, the chewy, smoky trail-food that powered the armies of the Thirty Years War (and three generations of Northwest hikers);
- Kasseler Rippchen, pink rounds of bone-in pork loin, lightly smoked and cured in brine, crying out for sauerkraut and boiled potatoes;
- Knackwürste, the noble juicy, garlicky original of the bland mushy ballpark frank-in-a-bun;
- Kielbasa, the Polish one-dish meal version of the Knack;
Not to mention items appealing to more recherché tastes: pale, subtly flavored stubs of Weisswurst (bring on the soft soda-simmered pretzels and honey mustard); maroon-brown hard-smoked tongue; gleaming jellied slabs of Sulz (so much more appetizing than the English name “head-cheese); Jagdwurst (like mortadella, baloney as it ought to be); I could go on. . . .
The Pike Place shop closed on May 31 without any real explanation. Most of its devotés assumed COVID was to blame, but in fact the closure would have happened in any case. Its twin sister owners Lynn Hofstatter and Lyla Ridgeway had decided to merge with the even older Seattle sausage-icon Oberto. In 2018 Oberto had become a subsidiary of Premium Brands, a Canadian-based holding company with nearly 40 specialty food brands in its portfolio.
And Pike Place Market has an iron-clad rule: tenants must be independently owned: no subsidiaries, however worthy, allowed. (You may be asking yourself: what about the Starbuck’s store? I’ve been asking that too, but haven’t gotten an answer.)
In mid-May, the sisters told Seattle Eater’s Gabe Guarante that they’d be back, but even the shop’s greatest fans wondered how that could happen. How could a shop so idiosyncratic, so out of step with modern marketing strategies survive on its own, without a prominent place on supermarket pre-pack deli shelves, the bloody war-zone where even a venerable label like Oscar Meyer can be pushed to the wall.
Still, there were reasons to hope. Premium Brands had a track record of letting its acquisitions try to find their own way to stay relevant without compromising their products; and the alliance with Oberto, a brand with a strong presence in the ever-growing snack-food category, promised a window to superstore visibility.
In fact, the Bavarian bratwurst at least has never gone entirely away, but its appearances at upscale grocery outlets (QFC, Metropolitan Markets, Town and Country and the like) have been so brief and irregular that one couldn’t count on finding them.
That, unhappily, hasn’t changed. What has is the intermittent appearance of some of Bavarian’s old favorites in the two Oberto “factory stores” on Seattle’s Rainier Avenue and Renton. There, if you’re lucky you’ll find not just brats (plain or smoked) but knackwurst (the absolute best frank on earth for backyard grilling). Staff rumors (unconfirmed by higher-ups) suggest that Weisswurst (the Oktoberfest staple)may make an appearance in time for the holidays if not before. And if you miss the modest funkiness of the old Pike Place shop, the Oberto stores are funkier still, with amiably distracted staff, brats to go, and bargain bins to poke through.
Will we ever again see the other Bavarian products authentically crafted from the recipes Max Hofstatter brought with him from the Old Country in 1931? That depends on the company finding a new storefront location with enough foot traffic and big enough (yet cheap enough) to prosper.
No actual news there, but it was confirmed last week (though without details and on deep background) that the search for a retail location where Bavarian can meet its hungering public face-to-face — or mask-to-mask — continues).
Even if successful, with butchery supply-chains in serious disarray, it may be a long while before the full line is back in production. Some marginally marketable products may never return. (How wide is the market for head cheese, actually?)
Still. Head cheese lovers, hang in there; there’s still hope.
Where to Find Bavarian Meats
The following list was provided by Bavarian management:
- Metropolitan Markets
- Town and Country Markets
- Sunny Farms in Sequim
- Fischer Meats in Issaquah
- B & E Meats Locations
- Stewart’s Meats in Yelm
- Klicker Berry in Walla Walla
- Butcher Boys in Puyallup
- Hess Delicatessen in Lakewood
- Northshore Quality Meats and Produce in Federal Way
- Double D Meats in Mountlake Terrace