A recipe written on a piece of cardboard helped launch Josephs Market 38 years ago.
Manuel Permuth handed over his secret recipe for chorizo when West St. Paul residents Gene and Irene Josephs bought his corner store and butcher shop on St. Paul’s West Side. Permuth, who was ailing, had offered to sell the store to Gene Josephs, his occasional mail carrier, whose own Lebanese-American family had a long history operating stores on the West Side.
The transfer of what the Josephses call a “trade secret” took place at the offices of Minnesota State Bank — but only after the closing on the $40,000 sale was complete.
Now the couple, faced with a long list of upgrades mandated by state inspectors, have decided to retire, closing the store that has been their life — and a big part of the life of the community.
The city of West St. Paul proclaimed April 14 Gene and Irene Josephs Day, citing the store’s Mexican and Lebanese products as well as the couple’s “many close relationships with those in their neighborhood.”
The store’s official last day was March 31, but neighbors trickled in on a few afternoons in mid-April when the store opened to sell off remaining items at half-price.
“We sold about everything we’re going to sell,” Irene Josephs, 74, said. The rest will go to the food shelf, church and their pantry at home.
Gilberto Bonfil, 13, stopped by toting a skateboard. He’s one of many neighborhood kids the couple has watched grow up, and Irene Josephs stood back-to-back with the boy to show how he’d shot past her in height.
One one of its final days, the store looked like a kind of time capsule, down to the green of the interior wall paint, a color the Josephses inherited and believe preceded them by several decades.
Mementos adorned every wall. Near the cash register was a small clipping — an obituary for the owner of a competing neighborhood grocery who died in 2004 and had helped the Josephses with their Mexican products.
Photos of customers were intermingled with family photos on a shelf behind the meat counter. Gene Josephs showed off prom portraits that customers felt moved to bring in over the years.
When graffiti vandals struck a mural on the side of the building, “the neighbors took it personally,” Gene Josephs, 77, said. The city sent an artist to hand-mix paints to match the original colors.
Passing trucks sometimes triggered the store’s alarm. One evening, Gene Josephs arrived to find neighbors responding to an alarm with dogs. A pair of teenagers checked the exterior armed with a pocketknife and a slingshot. “The police said, ‘Who are these people?’ I said, ‘They’re my customers.’ The cop couldn’t get over it.
“The little store is getting to be a thing of the past,” Gene Josephs continued. “They offer the community something the big stores can never offer.” That included store credit, which Irene Josephs said was simply “smart business.”
The store also carried homemade goods produced by women in the neighborhood. “Where [else] could you get homemade tortillas, tamales, flatbread? You could not get it. We had it all,” Gene Josephs said.
But competition from big chains and increased minimum order requirements from wholesalers made things increasingly difficult. Then in December, state inspectors arrived for the first time; city officials had handled inspections in the past.
“We had been grandfathered in for 37 years,” Gene Josephs said. “The city was great to us. They never threatened to close us down.”
The inspectors’ list of items to correct was so long the Josephs figured they had no choice but to close.
“At first [Gene] was hurt,” Irene Josephs said. But they harbor no hard feelings toward the inspectors. “We got what we wanted out of this store,” she said — including putting their four children through college.
“At my age, I should be retired,” Gene Josephs said. “They did me a favor.”
But he isn’t retiring completely. Instead he’s taking Manuel Permuth’s recipe — not on cardboard, but in his head — to Illetschko’s Meats and Smokehouse in South St. Paul. He’ll work there part time, producing chorizo and some of his Lebanese specialties from Josephs Market.
Chris Steller is a Twin Cities freelance writer.