Photo: Located at 101 Broadway S. in Gilbert, Koshar’s is a hidden gem on Minnesota’s Iron Range. The 90-plus-year-old sausage retailer remains a family-run business. Photo by Britta Bloomquist

A little bit south of the center of St. Louis County lies Gilbert, population 1,799. It’s home to Minnesota’s Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) Park, a retired NFL referee and a four-lane wide main street with few places to shop, a couple bars to visit, and a place that sells the most delicious salami around.

Koshar’s Sausage Kitchen located at 101 Broadway South, is a somewhat hidden gem on the Iron Range. With little to no advertising, this family-run meat market stays busy thanks to word-of-mouth.

Willy Ferkul, who has owned and operated Koshar’s since 2000, doesn’t know the whole story of the store’s history, but he does know that Fran Koshar and two buddies started the store in the 1920s just down the street from its current location. At the time, Gilbert was bustling with six or seven grocery stores and a co-op where present day Koshar’s stands.

Fran Koshar then passed the business to son Danny, and in 1983, Willie’s mother Le Schutte and step-father Rudy Schutte purchased the growing business. When Rudy passed away, Le and her kids ran the store until 2000, when Ferkul purchased it.

“I just love this place, I love it!” said Le Schutte, who stopped in to grab the daily paper and a snack. While Schutte no longer works at the store, she still stops in to visit, as it has always been a family affair.

Currently, Ferkul and his two adult children, Adam and Kari, run the store. Ferkul added that his wife insists that she chip in by doing laundry and helping clean the store while also working at the hospital. “We are closed on Monday’s, so we can clean and wipe the whole place down,” Ferkul said.

Koshar’s is a one-stop shop for specialty meats that may not be found at other local establishments. Currently the menu has 42 items listed but Ferkul said, “the list is always growing as tastes grow.”

Some favorites include Slovanian sausage - a form of Polish, potato sausage for the Swedes, Croatian offerings, blood sausage and smoked sausage. Holiday specials also have become regular items with their overwhelming popularity such as zelodec, a pork offering that is cooked in water and sliced like ham. They have also become “more Americanized” Ferkel said, with additions like smoked ribs. Other items include turketta, beefetta, pork chops, and favorite finger foods like hot Italian sticks.

“We got the recipes and that is why the store is still here,” Ferkul added. He said the recipes are all the same but instead of measuring them like they did back in the day via a “butcher’s hand worth,” Ferkul’s father converted them to five-pound increments, “because my hand is not the same size as the butcher’s,” he said.

The meat comes from two suppliers with farms in Albert Lea, St. Michaels, and Wadena. The meat is processed at a USDA facility, and then Koshar’s takes the meat from raw to the finished product.

The store also stocks imported products from European countries, and the pasta is really popular with older ladies in the area. Specialty cheeses are also available for purchase either in whole chunks or with meat and cheese trays.

Business has been good even when the economy crashed in 2008. “People have to eat! That’s why we bought the business,” said Ferkul, “but if we lose mining, we are in trouble.”

“February is our slow time due to the temperatures getting so cold outside, but our regular customers come back in March and apologize for not wanting to leave the house,” he said.

With locals coming in daily, Koshar’s also drops private orders off in Duluth when they are already making a trip. And, for those who no longer live in the area, Koshar’s will ship to your doorstep.

At this time, Koshar’s has no plans to grow in physical size or area. “People want hot sandwiches...and the sky is the limit,” commented Ferkul, “but I want quality to stay up, and I can still oversee everything. Once you get big, quality goes.”

The store is still using an older smoker, so that means workdays can last 10 to 12 hours while they “babysit the meat in the smoker. It isn’t about speed, it’s about quality,” he said.

Ferkul envisions his grandchildren taking over someday. “They are 14 and 15 years old, so they are already helping out,” said Ferkul.

With only three employees - all family, they’ve had to take turns missing out on family events such as weddings, so “someone can man the store,” said Ferkul, but he enjoys the family-operated business. “They know what they are doing,” while referring to his children, “and I can still oversee everything.”

Business will ramp up when the holidays approach, as people stop in to buy their favorite ethnic foods on the still diversified-culture Iron Range. Along with the favorites, the ever-popular bacon everything craze can be satisfied with Koshar’s new pepper-slab style bacon. There really is something for everyone at Koshar’s Sausage Kitchen in Gilbert.