LINCOLN PARK — At the age of 16, six years after arriving in America by boat from Germany, Otto Demke was put to work at a butcher shop on Halsted Street in Lincoln Park.
That was 1963, when butcher shops were as common as the corner bar in Chicago. The vast majority of those shops have closed, but Demke found a way to keep Gepperth's Meat Market in business until this day.
"There are pretty much a handful of real meat markets left in Chicago," said Demke, who bought the business from the original owner in 1981. "You can't keep up with the Jewels and the Dominick's. The competition from those guys was too great."
Although he admits he was extremely shy when he first started working at the butcher shop in the early '60s after growing up in a small German town, Demke attributes the shop's success to his familiarity with the customers.
On a typical Thursday afternoon, while the shop's only other full-time employee Don McCormick helped two women with a specialty handmade bacon sausage, Demke sliced his way through the liver of a lamb for a longtime regular, 80-year-old Harry Sheehy.
Sheehy had made his way to his go-to butcher at the corner of Armitage and Halsted by bus, all the way from Union Station.
The men have known each other about 15 years, and Demke, 65, knows exactly how his friend likes his cuts.
"Like this lamb's liver, he cuts it for me specially," Sheehy said. "He's going to cut some pork chops that he saved for me that have extra fat on them. You just can't get that elsewhere."
Demke runs the 106-year-old market with help from his wife Dianna, who specializes in the retail end of the business. Over the years, the couple have gotten to know customers on a first-name basis, and then their children as well as their grandchildren.
Most of the regulars come on the same day at the same time each week, Demke said.
While he admits that butchery isn't what it once was in Chicago, and most of the meat he sells come in packaged cuts rather than as whole animals that he once had to break down, Demke fine-tunes those cuts and has the cooking know-how that is unmatched.
"The trust people put in you is important," he said. "People call you and ask for cooking advice and they trust you."
With three weeks left until the Thanksgiving holiday, Demke was already fielding calls for orders and expected 400 to 500 orders to be placed this year. Many of those orders are for his wife's signature giblet gravy.
Demke recounted one night during the Christmas season when he and his oldest son worked straight through the night without sleep at the shop and continued helping customers the next day when they reopened.
"I wish there was a holiday every month," he said.
Lately, not all the business that comes through Gepperth's are the regulars and holiday shoppers, said Demke, who added there has been an uptick in the number of young customers who prefer to shop local rather than head to a chain grocery store.
Demke recently started selling meat on Artizone.com, an online market for local food shops that will accept orders through its website and deliver to customers' homes.
The shop also gets a fair number of walk-in customers who are simply curious.
"There aren't many specialty shops, so that's kind of the reason we walked in," said Juanita Medina, who works on Goose Island and calls herself a foodie. "The meat brought us in."