Pleasantdale Kosher Meat & Poultry Market, a presence in West Orange since 1954, will close its doors by the end of the month. Owner Lenny Wallen, almost 80, said that even though it wasn’t by choice, it was necessary.
“It’s very sad,” he said. “But it’s about time.”
Late in the afternoon on Dec. 21, the shelves were still filled with fresh meat, and Mike Mignone, a butcher who has worked at the store since the 1970s, was cutting fresh turkeys while Ruthie Goldinner, who has been wrapping the meat and cooking all the prepared foods since 1985, took orders over the phone.
But the dry goods on the shelves were dwindling, and Wallen said they won’t be restocked before the store closes. Much of the frozen inventory was reduced in price.
Some longtime customers are mourning the loss. Sharon Edelberg, who has shopped at Pleasantdale since she moved to town in 1995, stopped in. She turned pale after hearing the news about his closing from Wallen, and for a moment, was speechless. “I’m shocked! I seriously don’t know where to go for my meat now. Don’t get me wrong, you deserve to retire,” she told Wallen when she recovered from the news. Noting that her most frequent purchase there is the ground turkey, Edelberg headed over to the refrigerated shelves and quickly scooped up all but one of the packages of ground turkey. “I don’t want to be a chazer,” she said.
As they worked in the back of the shop, Mignone, Goldinner, and Wallen shared stories from the past six decades, from the car that drove right through the front window one Father’s Day (the driver put her foot on the gas instead of the brake, according to Mignone) to their 1997 mention in The New York Times, which called the store’s cooked chickens “the most flavorful poultry in New Jersey.”
But mostly, they joked. Goldinner told Wallen she’s worked at the store for so long “because you’re a lousy boss, Lenny.” Mignone said he remained because “I guess I kind of liked it here. We’re like a family. We have arguments and discussions, but we’ve all been through a lot together. We go to each other’s parties and bar mitzvahs and everything.”
Customers, too, have become part of their lives, including some who attended the funerals for Wallen’s parents and later his wife, and the funeral for Goldinner’s husband.
Wallen started working at the store in 1955, after he graduated from Weequahic High School in Newark. His father, Joseph, who had opened the store the previous November just across the street from where it stands now on Pleasant Valley Way, showed him how to tie roasts and manage various cuts of meat. Even though he said he didn’t have a great love for the profession at first, he “grew into the business.”
For decades, he had other gigs on the side — his love for sports led him to serve as referee/umpire for baseball, softball, and soccer games.
In the early years, Wallen recalled, his mother, Miriam, taught young, newly married women how to cook the meat they bought in the shop. “Now I sell to their children and grandchildren,” he said. “I have three generations of customers.”
The shop moved to its current location, in a strip mall next to Mark & Julie’s Homemade Ice Cream, in the 1970s and started selling pre-packaged meats, as well as deli and groceries. His parents continued to work behind the counter, taking orders and chatting with customers.
“Back then, everything was done by hand,” he said. Now, there are machines for most of the butchering, although in the back of the shop there is still a metal runner, now rusted out, where the meat used to hang for cutting.
Over the years, the kosher butchers in the area have closed one by one, leaving just Pleasantdale Kosher and Maple Kosher Meats in Vauxhall. None are Glatt kosher, though Cedar Market, a kosher grocery store in Teaneck, has plans to open a branch in West Orange sometime in 2018.
While he acknowledged that the influx of Orthodox shoppers who only buy glatt kosher meat “didn’t help,” he said, a bigger issue is that people can buy their meat at ShopRite and Costco. “Can you imagine? You can walk into ShopRite on a Saturday and buy kosher chickens,” he said, recalling, “Years ago, a person had to buy their chopped meat, chicken, liver, everything from a butcher. Now they get it elsewhere.”
But what really sealed the store’s fate, Wallen said, was Hurricane Sandy in 2011. From a financial standpoint, the store never recovered from the insufficient insurance that left him with $80,000 in losses after being shuttered for eight days.
Wallen said that at its peak, he sold about eight times the goods he sells today. In those days he had a larger staff. “I had four butchers, two meat wrappers, two cashiers,” he said. Today it’s just Wallen, Mignone, Goldinner, and Natalie Silveira, the cashier.
A relative newcomer — she’s only worked at Pleasantdale for 19 years — Silveira said, “I’ve been here half my life. It’s the end of a chapter.”
Still, their customers remain loyal. Aviva Tucker brought a bottle of champagne earlier in the day to mark the moment. “I’m heartbroken,” she said in a telephone conversation with NJJN. She said she’s shopped at the store since moving to West Orange 26 years ago. “They taught me how to cook. They’re like my family. It feels like there’s a death in the family. I’ve been coming every week for years and years and years and now poof.
“I told them I’d become a vegetarian after they close.”