Karl’s Sausage Kitchen & European Market vacates its Route 1 digs in Saugus to put down roots at a bigger, better location in Peabody, adding to its vast offering of homemade specialty meats. By Alexandra Pecci
As the saying goes, there are two things that you don’t want to see being made: laws and sausages.
Lawmaking might be an ugly process, but peering through the wide kitchen window to watch Bob Gokey hang links of mettwurst in the smokehouse at Karl’s Sausage Kitchen & European Market might make you think that the art of sausage making has gotten an undeservedly bad rap.
On the other side of the kitchen window, the market’s long glass refrigerator cases are filled with Bob’s creations. There’s coarse bratwurst, light and airy leberkaese, delicate veal-filled weisswurst, house-smoked bacon, red-tinged blood sausage, and spicy pepper loaf. A basket of hard-to-resist chewy homemade German pretzels sits atop the counter.
Karl’s Sausage Kitchen, which has been an iconic Saugus landmark since the 1950s, recently bid auf wiedersehen to Route 1’s zooming one-way traffic and awkward turnarounds in favor of a new location in Peabody that’s easier to get to and nearly quadruples the size of its retail space.
“You could get three or four customers in with one or two kids and it was full,” says co-owner Anita Gokey of the Saugus location. She gestures at the spacious kitchen, long display cases, café tables, and aisles lined with German groceries that make up the new 7,000-square-foot Peabody store. “This gives people a chance to relax and shop.”
Since Karl Engel and his wife Regina first opened the eponymous Sausage Kitchen in 1958, Karl’s has been the go-to spot on the North Shore for authentic, old-style meats that are handmade using traditional German recipes, ingredients, and techniques. The Engel family owned Karl’s Sausage Kitchen until 2007, when the husband-and-wife team of Anita and Bob Gokey purchased the business and learned the craft of sausage making from the Engels. It’s a task that Bob says he quickly got the hang of. “After you make the first couple thousand, it gets easier,” he quips.
For Bob, the tastes and smells of Karl’s Sausage Kitchen brought back memories of spending summers in Germany with his grandmother and cousins. But neither he nor his wife had any culinary experience when they decided to buy the business. Anita was at a crossroads in her career: The small tech company she’d worked for had recently been sold, and she’d just completed her MBA. She hungered for a new venture.
“I was looking for a food business to buy,” she says. Then, she found Karl’s. “Bob is German, it was close to our home. We started to fall in love [with the idea].”
The Gokeys are only the latest in a long line of people who have fallen in love with Karl’s Sausage Kitchen. Over the years, it’s developed a devoted clientele from across the region to stock up on the hard-to-find delicacies that have become Karl’s specialties. Anita points to products like weisswurst— a fresh, white Bavarian sausage that’s one of Karl’s best sellers. “It’s something you really can’t get anywhere else,” she says.
There’s also smoked tongue (“which people just love,” says Anita); beirwurst, “a grown-up bologna” made with garlic and whole mustard seeds; and ham hocks that are a favorite of Boston chefs. Some customers come in so regularly you could set your watch by them, like the football fanatic for whom Sunday is sausage day. “He comes in for our smoked pork chops every home game,” Anita says.
Regulars who have been shopping at Karl’s for years have come to expect freshness, as well as authenticity. Instead of cooking in bulk and freezing the excess, Bob cooks in small batches, making just enough of a certain product so that the store will run out of it in a day or two. “Everyone wants fresh food,” he reasons. Bob divides up his week by meats: Tuesdays are for making hotdogs, knockwurst, and bologna; Wednesdays for fresh sausage; Thursdays for smoked meat or liverwurst. Regulars often come weekly or monthly to find their favorites, timing their visits with Bob’s production schedule. “They kind of expect things on certain days,” he says.
Among the regulars are many German expats, including longtime customer Muthe Limpaecher of Topsfield, who moved to the area in the 1970s and has been shopping at Karl’s ever since. Originally from a town outside Hamburg in northern Germany, Limpaecher says the food at Karl’s is “real German food…the real thing.”
“They have the sausage and the bread that we grew up with and that we like,” she says. “It doesn’t have all the artificial ingredients, and as far as [German expats] are concerned, it’s much better than anything you can by in the grocery store.”
After decades of shopping at Karl’s, Limpaecher seems to have trouble narrowing down her favorite product. There’s the beerwurst, she says, and also the kassler, the coarse bratwurst, weisswurst, leberkaese, and frankfurters; and, of course, imported cheeses, like limburger. Then there’s the grocery items, like marzipan and sauerkraut. “They have a big variety of all kinds of other goodies,” she says.
Now that Karl’s has moved to the new Peabody location, there’s room for a lot more. Inside the new space, there are several aisles filled with German and European groceries. The store stocks everything from the basics to bags of müesli, stacks of crisp bread and chocolate bars, jars of gooseberries and pickled onions, boxes of spaetzle mix, smoked herring and eel, and little sacks of sauerbraten spice. There are sweets, like stollen and marzipan, as well as German CDs and cookbooks, plus a wide shelf of German-language magazines about everything from cars to history to current affairs to gardening; there are even German comics and puzzle books.
Although there’s room for growth here—and growth is certainly planned—Karl’s aims to strike a balance between the traditional and the new. That’s why growth is happening slowly and deliberately, driven by customer demand. “When we’re doing new things, most of the time it’s what our customers are asking for,” Anita says. “There are so many things that people miss from home.”
For example, the Hungarian sausage that they produce came not just from a customer request, but also from a recipe the customer got from a butcher in Hungary. Other recipes require more tinkering before they’re perfected and launched. “There’s a Swedish sausage that the Swedish ladies are asking us to make, now that Ikea’s not stocking it anymore,” Anita says, adding that they’re working on the recipe and producing test batches now.
Other new items are easier to add, like German cakes from a local baker and hams from a traditional German butcher in New York City. A new café with tables and chairs allows customers to linger over casual lunch entrées like sandwiches, grilled sausages, and pork schnitzel, as well as German beer and wine. Anita says dinner service will likely be added next year. There are also a few new items in the kitchen: Bob is very excited about his new smoker, which can steam and cook two products at the same time, and a refrigerated smokehouse, where he can make smoked salmon.
The café is an extension of the way regulars have viewed Karl’s Sausage Kitchen for years. More than a market, it’s also a place to catch up with friends and neighbors who run into each other as they shop for groceries and sausage. Although leaving a landmark behind for a new location might seem like a risky move, the Gokeys say that during their first week in the new store, lots of regulars had already stopped in; they even visited before the new store was open. “People have been driving by, making sure they knew where it was,” Anita says.
Despite the changes, there are lots of things that won’t be different about Karl’s Sausage Kitchen. There might be shiny new chrome café tables and a sleek, modern smoker, but Bob will still hand trim the meats, ensuring the perfect fat-to-meat ratio in the sausages. And they’ll still use the highest quality meats and spices to make traditional German sausages. It’s that adherence to tradition that draws customers like Limpaecher. Thanks to Karl’s Sausage Kitchen, she says she’s able to pass her culinary heritage on to her children and grandchildren, despite being thousands of miles away from Germany.
“One can only hope that the next generation will be as excited about it,” she says, although if the tastes of her two-year-old grandson are any indication, she has little to worry about.
“‘Wurst, wurst, wurst,’ he says,” Limpaecher laughs. “He can’t get it fast enough.” One Bourbon Street, Peabody, 978-854-6650, karlssausage.com.