Longtime Rogers Park butcher hangs up his apron | WBEZ
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Longtime Rogers Park butcher hangs up his apron

At first glance, Ed & Erv’s Centrella Food Mart on Touhy Avenue looks like any other small neighborhood grocer. Step inside and the first thing you notice is the smell of mothballs. On the shelves are the usual dry goods: cereal, canned beans and rice. Milk and dairy are in a refrigerator at the rear, and in a corner next to the cash register is a small area for fresh vegetables and fruits.

But all the way in the back is the store’s real hidden gem: a butcher’s counter. Denny Mondl, the owner, stands behind a case of his special ground chuck, homemade Italian sausage, bratwurst and skinless hot dogs.

“Obviously my specialty is the butcher. Probably two-thirds of my sales are in the back,” he said.

Mondl’s father, Erv Mondl, co-founded the neighborhood grocery 47 years ago on Touhy Ave. in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. (WBEZ/Odette Yousef)

Mondl’s father, the ‘Erv’ in the store name, opened the store with his business partner in 1947. For nearly seven decades, the small shop served generations of Rogers Park residents who were in the know about the high-quality meats they stocked, and who came to regard the Mondl family as a part of an extended family.

“Denny really exemplified what is so good about this neighborhood,” said longtime Rogers Park resident Kathy Kirn.

Kirn’s son, now 18 years old and attending college in Boston, once worked as a cashier in Mondl’s store. Kirn said as soon as her son found out Mondl planned to close, he bought an airplane ticket to Chicago to visit his old boss.

“Denny would make him sandwiches,” Kirn said of her son, when he was in grade school. Like many regulars, Kirn’s family kept a running tab, paid off regularly, at the store. Mondl never hassled them for payment on the spot.

Kirn recalled one time that Mondl saved a large family dinner from going awry. She had ordered brisket for a large Rosh Hashanah dinner, but her husband forgot to pick it up. “We got home and the babysitter with our kid said someone came and delivered something,” Kirn said.

“And Denny had it delivered to my house. He said ‘I knew it was important, so I just had someone deliver it.’ Who does that? No one does that.”

But Mondl said business really slowed down in the last decade.

“I used to do six deliveries a day, and I probably do about six a week now,” Mondl said.

Customers have been signing a guestbook in recent weeks, filled with their memories of Mondl and how the store played a role in their lives. (WBEZ/Odette Yousef)

Many of his older customers have passed away, and he thinks younger customers are too tired to go home and cook a meal after work.

Ironically, once people knew it was his last week, Mondl found himself just as busy as he was in the store’s heyday.

“I’ve been making a ton of stuffed chicken breast and stuffed pork chops for people,” said Mondl. “And when I say a ton, I usually get a 40-lb box of chicken breast. I’ve already gotten 120 lbs of chicken breast this week alone to bone out the breast to put the stuffing in it. And pork loins, the same thing.”

Hollye Kroger, a Rogers Park resident who only discovered Mondl’s store last year, said she’s very sad to see him retire. “I’m getting all kinds of food, tons of food to take home,” she said, “and stuffed chicken to stick in my freezer so I can pretend that it’s still open for another couple of months.”

Mondl said that at 65 years old, he’s the only one among his grade-school and high-school buddies who still works full-time, so he’s ready to hang up his butcher apron.

“I’m going to miss talking to people and the camaraderie with everybody,” he said. But he’s ready to take it easy. “I have projects at home to finish that I’ve only started,” he said, “because I’ve only been off one day a week.”

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.

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