As soon as I walk into Schaller & Weber, the little German grocery shop on East 86th Street, on a blustery day in January, I sense that something has changed. Until about four years ago, I regularly visited a friend who lived nearby, and I’d always stop at Schaller for the Black Forest ham, the cucumber salad, the dark heavy pumpernickel bread that’s the shape and weight of a small nuclear weapon and, of course, the sausages. This is one of the very few remaining outposts of Yorkville, New York’s old German neighborhood, and over the years, Schaller had started to feel a little dowdy. Nostalgia seemed to have infected its customers, who would examine products as if they were looking for some distant past in the Christmas stollen and marzipan figurines. “Remember this,” I once heard an elderly woman say to her friend, looking at a jar of lingonberry preserve.
Now, there’s a buzz. The shop seems revitalized, peppy as a polka. On this winter morning, a steady stream of customers passes by to investigate the large selection of Austrian wines and German beers. A group of Japanese tourists surveys the gorgeous pink hams, salami, cold cuts and shelves of housemade Düsseldorf-style mustard with horseradish; they look bemused by a bottle of currywurst ketchup. A lady in a large black fur hat gazes knowingly and with reverence at the display case full of sausages: Cheddar brats, knackwurst, blutwurst, gelbwurst and a score more.
My friend Alfred, who visits New York each year from his home in Berlin, gives a similar assessment of the store: “When I discovered Schaller & Weber, I was so glad that I no longer had to smuggle in Nürnberger bratwurst or weisswurst for my friends here,” he says. “Their product is so authentic, I can’t get better in Berlin. If you like cured and smoked meat and sauerkraut, it’s the only address in the city.”
In the shop, there is the brisk sound of hungry shoppers. The butcher’s counter is stocked with sumptuous steaks and pork chops; there are fresh baguettes and vegetables in large baskets. Schaller also makes and sells a marvelous fried chicken. “The secret,” says Jeremy Schaller, the store’s owner, “is that we put it in the fryers where the pork was cooked.”
Schaller, 41, enthusiastic and very charming, is the third generation of his family to run the business, and he has turned it into a full-fledged gourmet store while maintaining its original role as a purveyor of German meats. His grandfather Ferdinand, who trained as a butcher, left Germany in the 1920s. “The economy was terrible,” says Jeremy. “And he had a chance to travel the world as a cook on a boat.” Ferdinand eventually landed in New York and went into business with Tony Weber; they opened the store in 1937, and Schaller bought Weber out in 1956. After Ferdinand came his sons Ralph and Frank, Jeremy’s uncle and father. Later, Jeremy himself, after college and a career in the fashion business, found he missed the store where he had played as a kid and worked as a teenager. “Come back,” said his uncle. In 2015, he went.
As with so many of the best food shops in New York — Di Palo’s in Little Italy, Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side — at Schaller & Weber, the generational turnover has provided an enormous transfusion of ambition, interest and passion, as well as better and more varied products. And the store has not forgotten its essence: that Germanness shared by everyone who speaks the mother tongue and loves a great sausage.
By the end of the 19th century, New York had the third largest German-speaking population after Vienna and Berlin, mostly in Little Germany, a neighborhood that is now part of the East Village. By the start of the 20th century, the majority of the city’s Germans had moved uptown to Yorkville. The area — bordered by 79th and 96th Streets, Third Avenue and the East River — became known as Germantown, and 86th Street was often referred to as Sauerkraut Boulevard. By 1938, the Staats-Zeitung, New York’s biggest German-language newspaper, sold 80,000 or more copies a day. There were Hungarians, Austrians, Czechs and Poles, too, united by a shared culture of kaffee mit schlag, schnitzel and strudel; there were German dance halls, cafes, movie theaters and beer halls. There were also the Nazis.
During the 1930s, Yorktown was the New York base of the German American Bund, the German-American pro-Nazi organization that held marches and rallies across the country; one infamous gathering at Madison Square in 1939 drew more than 20,000 people. Not long after America entered World War II in 1941, Franklin Roosevelt, under the Alien Enemies Act, ordered the interment of more than 11,000 innocent ethnic Germans in camps, and among them was Ferdinand Schaller. When he was released, he returned to his shop and ushered it into the postwar era.
“Jeremy gets tradition,” says Chris Cunningham, who has worked at Schaller for 25 years, first as a delivery boy, later as a sausage maker and salesman and finally as the general manager. “He once painted a wall black and I thought he was out of his mind. But when he brought the company in to the 21st century, he got it right.”
Last year, Jeremy added the Schaller Stube; stube, in German, means “room” or “bar.” In this case, it is a counter next door to the shop where you can grab a grilled bratwurst on a pretzel bun (there’s also an outpost in the Essex Market downtown). The stand occupies an area that was once the store’s main entrance, and you can still see the huge black steel wheel and enormous gears used to slide sides of meat from trucks at the curbside into the back of the shop where butchers turned them into sausage. These days, everything — the sausages, the charcuterie — is made at the Schaller production facility in Pennsylvania, but the quality remains as good as ever. “I think the sausage is better at Schaller than most places in Germany even,” says my friend Alfred.
Down a flight of stairs from the main store is a small, private room where, on a low table, Jeremy has laid out lunch for the two of us: salami, ham, liverwurst, bologna, pâtés and cheese, along with slices of rye and pumpernickel. I’ve always loved liverwurst; when I was little, we ate it on rye from Ruben’s deli on 10th Street. There is also landjäger — a dried, jerky-like sausage traditionally stashed in lederhosen pockets on Alpine hikes — and a delicious cold Pilsner that’s always on tap upstairs. “A good German breakfast, whether in New York or Berlin, is not complete without landjäger or teawurst,” Alfred tells me later over the phone. “When I’m in New York, I always head for Schaller & Weber first thing to prevent an inevitable bout of Heimweh” — or “homesickness.”