Before airplanes, TV or even the Spanish-American War, Wurst Kitchen was selling its locally famous handmade sausages and smoked meats in Aurora.
The store still does a brisk business where it opened in 1895 at 638 2nd Ave. and Union Street, especially during the holiday season. Former Aurora residents visiting family stock up on their favorites among the more than 80 kinds of sausage the shop makes. Even European visitors have been known to pack bratwurst to take home.
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Ed Schleining, the owner of Wurst for the past 18 years, said customers get the same kind of sausage their grandparents and great-grandparents used to buy, albeit now they also have the choice of a number of gourmet flavors.
"These recipes came over on the boat years and years ago. It's the real thing," he said. "If we only made good sausage we would have been out of business 40 years ago. The stuff we make is exceptional."
The secret of making extra-good sausage is not what is put in it, but what's left out, Schleining said. The shop boasts of using only trimmed lean meat and spices.
"You cannot make good sausage with bad meat," Schleining said. "We don't put any chemicals or preservatives in any of the sausage we make."
Customers notice the difference, he said. Some drive from Chicago on summer weekends to buy sausage. Others who summer in Wisconsin have Wurst sausage sent up when they're having a get-together. One family drives in on a monthly basis from Clinton, Iowa.
"We make sausage every day," Schleining said. "We've been making sausages and smoked meats in this building for 117 years."
An Aurora native, Schleining grew up with Wurst Kitchen, although his family also used to make sausage at home. After his grandfather died and his uncles grew older, the sausage-making became a once-a-year event.
"I would come in and smell the smoke from the smokehouse and the spices and it would always remind me of Christmas, because that's when the family made it," he said.
Schleining never expected to one day own Wurst Kitchen. His interest in sausage-making actually started with a beer he had in a pub in England. It was like no beer Schleining had ever tasted, and didn't come from a can or bottle. Schleining couldn't find anything similar in the United States in those days before microbreweries, so he and his brother started making beer. Then they thought about what else they could make and decided on sausage.
But before they could dig out the old family sausage-making equipment, Wurst Kitchen came up for sale. Schleining bought it and hasn't looked back since.
"I never thought I would do what I'm doing, but I sure enjoy it," he said.
Oldest retail store
Wurst Kitchen, the oldest retail store in Aurora according to the Aurora Historical Society, actually had its origins before it opened in 1895, Schleining said.
A man by the last name of Meyer and his partner, Emile Arnold, opened a butcher shop in Aurora in the 1870s. But the two had a falling out and Arnold left to open Arnold Meat Market, where Wurst Kitchen is now.
He sold it to one of his employees, Edmund Hauser, in the early 1900s and Hauser renamed it Hauser Meat Market. Hauser passed the store on to his son, Henry, who ran it until the mid-1960s. When the store sold again, it was renamed Wurst Kitchen.
"Wurst in German means sausage. Wurst Kitchen is sausage kitchen," Schleining said.
Located in the old German section of Aurora, the full-service meat market supplied meat to all the neighborhood groceries in the community. Farmers used to drop off their cattle and pigs in a pen in the back of the property and butchering was done every morning.
Wurst Kitchen got out of the fresh meat business in the 1960s because it could not compete with the meat counters of supermarkets.
But when it came to smoked meats and sausages, Wurst had something the supermarkets couldn't offer: a customer can bring in a family recipe and order custom-made sausage.
"I have a big recipe box we keep in the safe. Someone will bring us their family recipe and we'll put it in the box," Schleining said.
During the fall hunting season, the store also is a choice location for hunters to have their game processed.
"We do a really good business with the venison sausage," Schleining said. "You get back your own meat and that's really important to hunters."
Schleining, who also has an outlet store in Plano, said he works 18- to 20-hour days, seven days a week during the hunting and holiday seasons. Traditional German sausage such as bratwurst and Thuringer are still favorites, but with his old customer base aging, Schleining has expanded his products to meet the tastes of a more diverse community.
He makes chicken sausage in flavors that include sun-dried tomato and basil. Customers can try a taco bratwurst or Moroccan lamb sausage. Polish sausage is a big seller at Christmas and Easter, he said.
"We have all kinds of ethnic specialties, Italian, Polish. We make Chinese sausage now and then," he said.
Even in Germany, sausage has a multitude of variations depending on the town where it's made, Schleining said.
"There are technically over 2,000 different kinds of sausage in Germany alone. Germans, they're crazy for their sausages," he said.
Schleining, whose family immigrated from Germany after World War I, said he didn't know he was German when he was growing up because his ethnic heritage was considered somewhat shameful at the time. His subsequent visits to Germany have convinced him he's come a long way from the land of his ancestors.
"The only thing that's left German in our family is the sausage-making and the name," he said. "No one ever said we were Germans. We were Americans."
Still, Wurst Kitchen helps keep German traditions alive by sponsoring an annual Oktoberfest in Plano in September. Fest-goers can listen to German bands, buy beer and feast on traditional German fare like bratwurst, roast pork, sauerkraut, schnitzel, German potato salad and apple strudel.
"We keep it very family friendly," Schleining said. "We have it so grandmas and grandpas can come with the kids."
And if the grandparents want to show the grandkids what an old-time meat market looked like when they were young, they have only to take them to Wurst Kitchen. Antique butchering equipment is on display and photographs show how the store used to be.
Not that much has changed in the shop for the past several decades.
"The meat cases we have were brand new in 1941," Schleining said. "The newest thing in the shop would be the wallpaper, and that is from 1966."
He's considered doing some interior redecorating, but he figures it might spoil the ambience and, besides, the wallpaper might come back in style.
"There are not many places like this any more," Schleining said.
For more information on Wurst Kitchen, visit www.wurstkitchen.com or call (630) 898-9242.