photo: Gene's Sausage Shop (via Facebook)
For years, the Lincoln Square location that's garnered the biggest crowds has been the Chicago Brauhaus, with spillover crowds heading between there and the Huettenbar. But a newcomer to the area has had locals packing the aisles since its opening late last year. Gene's Sausage started off serving the heavily Polish neighborhoods out on West Belmont, but customers had been clamoring for a more central location. They got what they wanted when the Lincoln Square stalwart, Delicatessen Meyer, decided to close its doors, with Gene's moving into the vacant space.
The shop recognized the big shoes it had to fill; the first thing customers of the new location (dubbed Gene's Sausage Shop at Delicatessen Meyer) likely noticed upon entering was the former resident's vintage neon sign, hanging prominently in the heart of the space. It's details like that which have already endeared Gene's to local shoppers. Even with many nearby options - including HarvesTime, Lincoln Square Meat Market, and Jewel-Osco and Dominick's within walking distance - the shop has attracted a large daily crowd. We spoke with Yolanda Luszcz, manager and general go-to person for Gene's, to find out what the attraction is.
What made you and your family decide that you wanted to open up your second location in Lincoln Square?
We have another location at 5330 West Belmont, and we've been there for 38 years now. We have been looking for a very long time for a location that's closer to the downtown area. We had a lot of customers that were coming to our store there. We spent a lot of time searching and looking for the right location, and when we found the location here in Lincoln Square, it made sense to us for several reasons.
One being that it used to be a delicatessen for many years, that spanned several different owners and had a built-in clientele. Secondly, it's been a very entrepreneurial district – lots of mom-and-pop-type stores. Thirdly, the street itself is very European in nature, with the pedestrian area, and it's also very family-oriented with lots of families located in close proximity.
Were you conscious of the history that Delicatessen Meyer had with residents in the neighborhood?
We used to shop there with my mom when it was Deli Meyer because they had some products we didn't have in our other location. We were familiar with the store – I can't say we stopped there every single week, but over the years we have come to the location to shop.
I ask about that because of the decision to keep that amazing Deli Meyer sign and its very prominent placement in the new Gene's. Who made the call to mount it front and center?
I would say it was the entire family's decision. My brother and myself were the ones that were actually searching for the second location for many years, and we actually contacted Alderman Schulter two years prior to purchasing this space about another location to talk about zoning, because it wasn't currently zoned for a business. We stopped by, we spoke with him, and that other location didn't turn out to be okay in terms of changing zoning, and it was he who called us two years later and brought this location to our attention. We came, we checked out the space, and it made sense.
I think that the fact that there was a history here definitely helps with the decision in terms of whether or not the space makes sense for us. And the fact that it was a European deli was also important to us because they had similar products and we felt that hopefully the customers that frequented the other store would frequent this one as well.
I've heard that come summertime there will be a rooftop deck, but I haven't seen a lot of details about it yet. Can you share a little more about what you're planning for the upper level?
We plan to do a rooftop open-air beer garden/wine and small plates [space]. In terms of the look and feel of it, it'll be lots of trees, lots of flowers, a wooden deck. We want to be more communal in nature, so we're thinking about a communal table, sort of a rustic feel to it. It will be very interesting.
There are a lot of boutique locations around Chicago that specialize in one certain cuisine or heritage. It seems like you've focused on taking pieces from all of those and making a catch-all kind of place where you can get a little bit of everything, but still with some things you can't find anywhere else.
At this location, just because of the old German heritage, we did heavy up a little bit more than our other location on German products. Some of the things that we strive to do here is to carry a product line of things that are hard to find at other locations and really specialized. Some things that stand out are our smoked meats that we make here ourselves. We have 40 varieties of ham, sausage and deli meats that we prepare with our own sausage makers who are actually from Europe. And we also have a prepared foods case with all sorts of interesting European salads, cabbage rolls, crepes, pierogi, those types of items.
I wanted to commend you on your single beer collection. You've amassed a very interesting collection of European beers including some gargantuan 51-ounce selections, which I haven't seen anywhere else at all.
When you open up a store, it's a living, breathing thing. You have to alter your product mix, see what things are moving, what aren't moving, and then switch them out based on what people are looking for. We introduced those because we have those at our other location, and I have to tell you, we can't keep them on the shelf. I've spoken to customers that have lived in Moscow and other places in Russia, and they say it's a very popular beer there, and actually tastes great. The Arsenal and the Baltika are amazing beers and very well-known in Russia.
Any other products that might be hard to find anywhere else or that you're especially proud of?
Our potato sausage, which is a Swedish-style sausage. It's potato in a natural casing with sauteed onions and bacon. Another thing that I think is very difficult to find is our chocolate selection. We have so many different imported European chocolates and candies and chocolate gift boxes and cookies for the holidays and even the non-holiday periods.
We're still perfecting everything. Up through the holidays we weren't serving sandwiches and salads to go, and that's something that we're going to be focusing on right now is to try and put in a nice sandwich menu for the lunch crowd. And in the summer we'll have some tables and chairs out front and have a little sidewalk cafe.