Popalis Family History
Wednesday, August 11, 1999
Pottsville Republican/Evening Herald
Expert Kielbasi Makers Leave this Novice in Awe
BY STEPHEN J. PYTAK
SHENANDOAH -- It's nothing for Mark Kowalonek to effortlessly churn out
ring after ring of that popular Schuylkill County staple - kielbasi.
But for the average person, the experience can be frustrating and messy.
Trust me. Out of 10 tries, I'm lucky if I did two right.
"It's not round," Kowalonek said, looking over one ring I made.
The Shenandoah native of Polish descent whose family started Kowalonek's
Kielbasy Shop in 1911 has been on the job since he was 13. At 42, Kowalonek
is an artisan of sausage making.
Working in the "kilbo" business isn't just about making rings, I discovered
working alongside Kowalonek and his staff at the Main and Laurel streets
Kowalonek started his day at 6 a.m., driving from his home in Nesquehoning
to Vernalis Restaurant, Shenandoah, where at 6:30 he ordered a meatless
breakfast: three pieces of toast with strawberry jelly and coffee with milk
When I arrived at 7, he had me help him carry in a PC-sized metal
contraption - a hot-dog linker to string up kielbasi hot-dogs he called
The machine, which cost $4,995, was bought on a 30-day-trial basis from
Linker Machines, Rockaway, N.J.
Walking in, I thought about how legendary this one-story building - part
kielbasi works, part store - is locally. At Christmas and Easter, lines go
out the door and down the block.
"It's first come, first serve," said Kowalonek, whose business, which
employs four full- and two part-timers, is one of 13 butcher shops in
Schuylkill County that make kielbasi on site.
With him that day were production manager David J. Krusinsky, Frackville;
cashier Ann M. Kowalonek, Shenandoah, the owner's mother; and production
assistants Nicholas A. Palina, Frackville, Cheryl Kostowskie, Shenandoah,
and Stephan Kowalonek, a cousin of Mark's from Frackville.
Also working alongside his son as he does every day was Kowalonek's father,
Paul, who previously owned and managed the store.
They stayed busy all day, creating what amounts to a ton and a half of pork
a week, approximately 1,000 rings of kielbasi.
Kowalonek and I washed our hands with antibacterial soap, put on white
aprons and got our hands sticky in a giant steel vat filled with ground up
beef and pork.
To survive in this business, Kowalonek said he has to make kielbasi that
has the traditional flavor the people of the coal region grew up with.
We talked about this while we made kielbasi loaves, by scooping 3-pound
gobs of the meat out of a vat, then sculpting them with our hands.
"Obviously, you can't do everything," he said about matching the
traditional flavor. "But the trick is to get as close as you can. You use
the same garlic that you used. You use the same salt from the same
suppliers. Consistency is the key."
Kowalonek then opened a walk-in refrigerator and rolled out a 55-gallon
plastic barrel already filled with rings of kielbasi.
He and I hung ring after ring, 400 in all, on a 4-foot-long rack, which was
then rolled into a closet-sized machine to be smoked with hickory chips.
At 9 a.m., the store opened and the first customer in the door was Ronald
J. Rader, Frackville, an aide to state Sen. James J. Rhoades, R-29, who was
picking six rings - three smoked, three fresh - for people who had
experienced Kowalonek's fare during a recent visit.
It doesn't matter how much you know about smoking kielbasi and about its
flavor, if you don't know how to make it. Around 10, I got my first lesson
from the man who spends most of his day in a corner working at a
"I keep asking him to get me a window," said Krusinsky, who has been
working there 11 years, starting when he was a Shenandoah Valley High
There is no view, Kowalonek said. "Unless you want to see the back of a
Krusinsky loaded 100 pounds of raw kilbo into a giant steel tub. With his
knee, he pushed a lever to activate a hydraulic piston. The piston pushed
the meat out of a tube and into a wet white translucent casing made of pig
Krusinsky did it with lightning speed, then stapled the two ends of a ring
together by inserting them into another machine.
When I tried, I wasn't making rings. I was filling casings until they were
as big as some African snakes. Sometimes, when I'd hold the casing too
tight, it would break and I was just making a mess.
The trick to doing it is to control the flow of the meat into the casing,
"It takes practice," Krusinsky said. "If you sat here and did a whole
hundred pounds, by the time you got the whole hundred pounds done, you
wouldn't be quick at it, but you'd get the hang of it."
At 11:30 a.m., the work crew was treated to fresh baked ziti for lunch,
made by Elizabeth "Mimi" Kiskeravage, Stephan Kowalonek's grandmother, who
lives a few doors up.
Mark Kowalonek and his staff chose to eat in the sausage room, although the
smell of raw meat was heavy.
There, he talked about his youth, growing up in Shenandoah and playing for
the Shenandoah Valley football team.
He graduated from high school in 1974 and earned a B.A. from Villanova
University in 1978. He worked at other management jobs before he took over
the store in the early 1980s.
Looking to the future, Kowalonek is trying to come up with new products to
please his kielbasi lovers.
Helping him are his customers, including Mabel J. Yurkonis, 65, of
"Mabel is one of the first people who gets to test stuff," Kowalonek said.
"She tested our next product which is coming out, kielbasi burgers."
"You heat them over charcoal," Yurkonis said. "You brown them. Put them on
a bun, with lettuce, tomatoes, what have you. Maybe some catsup or
mayonnaise on it. Whatever you want. They're very good."
Kowalonek's father, who managed the business from 1948 until his son took
over, said he's proud of his son and knows why he is a success as a
"He likes to work hard," he said.
The younger Kowalonek also likes to work for himself.
According to his father, Mark always says "Why should I put in 60 hours for
someone else when I could do it for myself?"
(Reporter Steve Pytak has been trying out various jobs around the county this year.) ?
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