Urbaniak Brothers Keep the Fires Burning
Generations continue to shop small on 24th and German
Our sense of smell is a powerful memory trigger. Multiple scientific studies have shown that there is greater brain activity associated with olfactory stimuli than with visual stimuli. But anyone whose childhood included regular trips to Urbaniak Brothers Quality Meats, a generational meat market and deli at 24th and German, knows this fact intrinsically, without the need for empirical data. The scent of Urbaniak's woodsmoke, which they use to smoke sausages, bacon, salmon, and other meats in-house, permeates everything. It follows you home, and perfumes the air well after you've checked out.
Gerry Urbaniak, one of two Urbaniak brothers currently running the store, states that these shared memories are part of why their business continues to succeed: "Not only do people go out of their way to come here, people come here for generations. It's an intergenerational business. People make a point to come here, even from out of town. They make the effort to travel here because this is what they want, because they were raised on it. Then their kids and those kids' kids come here. It's very traditional."
Whether you were raised on Urbaniak's products for generations or you're a newcomer, one thing is for certain: you can feel the tradition and the history of the building upon entry. The meat counter, the deli counter, the produce bay, and bakery are largely unchanged from when Gerry's father, Chet Urbaniak, moved the family business into this building in the late 1950s. There is a note above the door of the original walk-in cooler, written on the wood, that shares their opening day: "December 4th, 1958."
"The Urbaniak family homestead was on East 11th Street, off of East Avenue. There were four boys and four girls and two cousins that lived in that house with my grandparents. The oldest brother, my Uncle Benny, started the business when he was 17. He was working in slaughterhouses and packing houses when he was younger (people started working a lot younger in those days), so then he started his own meat business in the old Market House on 12th and French, so that would have been around 1927." Urbaniak continues on about the history of the market, "About four or five years later, my dad, Chet, joined his brother and so instead of Urbaniak's Meats it became Urbaniak Brothers Meats."
This faded, vintage photo shows the very early days of Urbaniak Brothers Meats, when they ran their operation out of Erie's Central Market House. From left: Ben Urbaniak, Chet Urbaniak, Eddie Urbaniak, Ted Urbaniak, Richie Izbicki, Joe Wasielewski, and Danny Ropelewski.
After the 12th Street Market House burned down in 1951, the brothers moved their business into Erie's Central Market House at 16th and State. This was just south of the railroad overpass on the west side of State Street and occupied nearly the entire block. The Urbaniaks stayed there until the mid-1950s, when the Erie Redevelopment Authority decided to demolish the Market House in favor of building a centralized shopping mall. At that point, Chet decided to build his own market.
"So my dad and his brother Ted hired a consultant from New York City to figure out where the best place in Erie would be to build the market. He came to Erie and he surveyed everything and he said 24th and German is the population center of Erie. So they took his advice and bought all these properties around here and they built this market." Gerry continues, "And pretty much every day since that day, the population of Erie has steadily moved south of us. But they didn't know that was going to happen so that's why this building is here today."
The Urbaniaks have always embraced their neighborhood and the customers that come along with it. "There have been a lot of developments around town that have wanted us to join them. They say: go some place where you'll be busier. We're not going to leave this neighborhood. We love these people. They've supported us all these years," Gerry reflects. Aside from the fact that their business is constantly steady, moving away from the store established by Gerry's father is unthinkable. Back when Chet Urbaniak built this store, there were small "Mom & Pop" grocery stores everywhere. But now nearly all of those are gone, and with the ever-increasing awareness of food deserts, Urbaniak Brothers plays an important role in serving their local community: "We have been told by many people including congressmen, mayors, city council people, how grateful they are that we're here. Because we serve this community that has had a lot of challenges. And we're happy and grateful to serve them."
Gerry and his brother Andy are always working to help the business grow as the years go by, while also holding steadfastly to the traditions that have made the business what it is today. They are uncompromising when it comes to the food they make and if a certain required ingredient is unavailable, they simply won't make do with a different product. Gerry pulls out what he calls the "Family Bible," a yellowed, leather-bound, grease-stained recipe book that the family has used (and added to) since the earliest days of the business. It is this kind of tradition that informs all they do and make, ensuring all the products taste exactly as expected every time.
Gerry Urbaniak digs out his family "Bible," a recipe book that has existed since 1958 and contains all of the recipes Urbaniak Brothers uses to create all of their foods. Consistency is important and following those recipes means that their foods will taste the same today as they did 50 years ago.
Gerry's father, Chet, continued on with the family business until his death at age 97, just six years ago. He worked up until two weeks before he passed away: butchering meat, serving customers, and finding satisfaction and fulfillment in the family business. Gerry reflects, "He loved our store and was thrilled that he could still work every day — so were we! He was a legend in the Erie meat industry." Gerry's mother, Rita, also worked up until her retirement at age 90. Many of the recipes that are still used (and kept secretly bound in that historic book) were hers. "All of our employees and customers loved her." It is a tight-knit group at Urbaniak Brothers; whether by blood or by experience, they are all family.
When Urbaniaks first opened, the brothers' station was simply the butcher counter. They rented out the other stalls in the shop to different proprietors, just like how it would have been in the Central Market House, but on a smaller scale. Urbaniak recalls, "We had Dutch Farms poultry and cheese where our deli counter is now. We helped Scolio get his start here in the produce bay. We had Picardo family horseradish at the front counter for decades. We had Balkan Bakery for years, then Colonial Bakery. Through the years we've eventually brought everything into our fold and now do it all ourselves, except the bakery."
Today the bakery stall is occupied by the all-natural, all-local Herb and Honey Bakery. Owners Jessica Schultz and Danny Babo jumped at the chance to be a part of the long-standing tradition of Urbaniaks and are proud to call the shop their home base. "I had a bakery in Virginia for eight years," Schultz continues, "I'm originally from Erie and I moved back during the pandemic. The first time I walked in here to look at this spot, it was like sensory overload, but I was amazed. It's such a unique spot and they put so much effort and integrity into what they make; it's just something I wanted to be a part of."
For Schultz and Babo, being a part of a local small business is important, as highlighting and celebrating local is what they're all about. They use as much locally grown produce as is available, and only use fruits and vegetables that are in season when coming up with the recipes for their sweet and savory treats. Schultz comments: "We do all of our stuff from scratch. I try to get local as much as possible. I had a local farmer grow the specific pumpkins I wanted to make pumpkin pies this year."
Babo has very nostalgic memories of Urbaniaks from growing up and he is thrilled to get to be a part of the future of the business that was so much a part of his past: "I've been coming here since I was a baby, with my grandma and my great grandma. So to put a bakery in here kind of feels like opening a bakery in your aunt's house or something. It feels like family already. And so we try to make things that are on the same level of quality as the Urbaniaks. And we use their meat in our baked goods whenever we can."
When asked about the future of the business, Urbaniak feels confident that the work and dedication that his family has put into the neighborhood and the store will continue on. "We're in the adult life of our business now. We've never been busier than we are now. We have a lot of customers and that's what we're here for. The future, for us, is here. You keep growing, or you die. Even though we're getting older, we just keep charging." And if Gerry is anything like his parents, we'll be greeted with his kindness and familiarity for decades to come, as he, his brother, and his adopted family of employees keep the smoky fires burning.
Andy Urbaniak hand cuts each pork belly down to the exact size necessary to fit on their slicer after it's been smoked into bacon. Andy says, "The meat tells you where to trim it, you just gotta know where to look." Not many people have this kind of intuition or experience; Andy's brother Gerry likens it to an art.
Urbaniak Brothers Quality Meats is open Wed-Fri 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. // Herb and Honey Bakery is open for pre-order pickups at Urbaniak Brothers Fridays and Saturdays // Visit urbaniakbrothers.com and herbandhoneybakery.com for more info
Little brings Erin Phillips more joy than cured or smoked meat in casings. This was a very enjoyable interview for her. She can be reached at email@example.com