I always felt like I missed the memo.
Years ago, I arrived at the West Side Market for the very first time, thrilled at the prospect of fully realizing my culinary genius. Purposefully strolling through the produce arcade, reusable bags at the ready, I pushed open an unmarked door and found myself … in an alley? Stepping over an empty vegetable crate, I hurried behind a toddler-toting couple and followed them into the Market. A rush of warm air scented with garlic and sugar and history washed over me, as I bumped right into an elderly woman pulling a wheeled cart. Even her glare had an accent.
Dazed, I meandered from stand to stand, trying to recognize something to buy and marveling at a detailed conversation about the process of stuffing grape leaves and a spirited repartee about how much ground sausage $5 could buy. After an hour I arrived back at the door through which I had entered, loaded down with enough carrots to feed a colony of bunnies.
Remembering that first visit and several after, it always seemed like my confusion was contrasted by everyone else’s insider knowledge, their understanding of the full beauty of the Market; its history, people and endless edible treasures. Recently, I found some answers at a sausage stand tucked away in the corner of the West Side Market from a man who can tell tales nearly as well as he can cure a ham.
Miklos “Mike” Szucs is the owner of Dohar Meats, purveyor of all things salted, smoked and cured from pork raised within two hours of the Ohio City neighborhood the Market calls home. A burly man with a kind face and a gentle voice rich with ethnic pride, Szucs learned his trade in the Hungarian countryside. “It was what we did. I started learning at age 5 or 6. It wasn’t for business; it was to make our food.”
Dohar Meats began in the late 1940s as Lovaszi’s Meats (half of the stand’s marquee still bears the original name). Lovaszi’s sold fresh pork until Szucs’ father-in-law, Steve Dohar, came on the scene. In 1951, Dohar immigrated to Cleveland from an Austrian refugee camp, where family lore holds he would sneak away from camp to prepare the home-style comfort foods like headcheese, garlic sausage and hurka, a mix of pork, rice and spices, to sustain his fellow refugees. Visiting the West Side Market, Dohar met Emery Lovaszi and encouraged him to move away from fresh pork and toward the Old World pork products beloved by the Central European immigrants rapidly populating the neighborhood. Dohar donned an apron the next day, and eventually took over the stand in 1973.
Steve Dohar’s three sons and one daughter helped their father run the stand through the years. In 1982, daughter Angela left for Hungary to visit relatives, returning to Cleveland four years later with her new husband, Miklos Szucs. Szucs worked in construction until a phone call on the last day of seasonal work in November 1987. A childhood heart condition resulting from scarlet fever had finally caught up with Steve Dohar, who was being rushed into open-heart surgery. “On Wednesday I got laid off from construction and on Friday I took over the business,” says Szucs. Steve Dohar never returned to the stand, relocating to Florida after recovering from the surgery.
Szucs estimates that half of his customers are descendents of the clientele served by his father-in-law and Lovaszi.
Many long-standing cusit. Szucs recalls answering the phone one Saturday to a booming voice demanding, “What’s going on with the garlic sausage?!” Steve Dohar was calling from a Florida hot spring, where vacationing customers let slip that Szucs was using less garlic in the sausage. By the time the snowbirds returned to their original state, so had the sausage.
Steve Dohar passed away in 2001. In 2006, Szucs’ wife fell ill—and once again, the regulars noticed. “Where’s the girl?” they asked. Recalling that time, Szucs looks out over the Market, eyes betraying his emotion as his confident voice wavers. “I had so many people praying for her. You don’t get that in a supermarket.”
Today, Mike is the last remaining family member at the stand. “What started as a mom-and-pop business is now just a pop business,” says Szucs. His wife’s condition has improved but she no longer works. Their only son is an accountant, a fact Szucs relays with pride. His three employees, all of Hungarian descent, clearly feel connected to the stand and its mission.
“The customers like it when you can speak the language,” says Stephen Kocskar, who has worked for Szucs for two years. Employee Mike Gereg is the son of a Hungarian butcher, now deceased. “It feels like a way to hang out with my dad again,” says Gereg. “It’s close to my heart.”
Dohar Meats is not bound by nostalgia, though, and Szucs continues to look forward. Seven years ago, Szucs purchased state-of-the-art equipment for his smokehouse on West 41st Street, where all of his meat is processed. “I used to sleep at the smokehouse,” said Szucs. Before the system was automated, Szucs would set several alarms to wake him throughout the night so he could attend to the hundreds of pounds of meat needing his attention in various stages of smoking and curing.
Before leaving, Szucs treats me to a sampling of the stand’s offerings. I was unprepared for the piquant flavors and variety of textures presented to me proudly on wispy white butcher paper. Spicy sausage, succulent tenderloin and peppery bacon effortlessly revealed the secret of Dohar’s longstanding success. When you know that what you’re eating has been made with genuine care for your satisfaction, it can’t help but taste better. Mike Szucs knows this. “If I make a mistake with my products, the host will feel ashamed. If my products are good, it will make the host proud.”
What Mike Szucs contributes to the West Side Market is clear, but before leaving I had to wonder about the opposite, so I ask Szucs what he believes the Market gives back. “Good, wholesome foods. Friendships. It’s a privilege when customers shop from vendors, because there are other choices.”
Then I made a confession. I told Szucs how the West Side Market used to confuse and intimidate me. His advice seemed counterintuitive at first blush. “Don’t buy anything for the first half hour,” suggests Szucs. “The Market is a shopping experience.
You have to take your time. You have to smell, taste, talk and ask questions.” Szucs classifies Market customers in two ways: “buyers” who view shopping as a chore to be done as quickly as possible and “shoppers” who want to look around the Market and purchase carefully. “Don’t be a buyer,” advises Szucs. “Be a shopper. I guarantee that by the third or fourth time customers will know the personality of the people they want to do business with. That’s how you become a regular. It takes time.”
When I need a recommendation for a loaf of bread to purchase on my way out, Szucs bellows, “Come with me!” We wend our way through the stands, fellow vendors calling out respectful greetings along the way. Szucs introduces me to the owner of a bread stand, and the three of us discuss why a particular loaf is the one for me. And I start to wonder if this isn’t what that memo would say—the one I thought I had missed. Mike Szucs could be its author: take my time, smell, taste, ask questions.
Now I get it. I’ll definitely be back.