Pass through the doors of Union Market on a busy Saturday and you will encounter a frantic scene packed with millennials, Gallaudet students, families, and elderly couples from across the region.
And baby strollers. Lots of baby strollers.
There’s an oyster bar, a “roof-to-table” restaurant with craft cocktails, a faux-retro soda shop with booze, an “urban bohemian” home furnishings store, walk-up food vendors, a knife sharpening stand, a liquor store, and clothing and jewelry retailers.
It’s a bright, shiny place where, in spite of the crowds, you can get in and out in 15 minutes while shopping for a dinner party because there’s no line at the dairy shop, the cheese stand, the bakery counter, or the fish monger. That’s because most visitors are there to score a meal to eat on-site, likely outside with a pair of the same species of dog.
The soul of the bougie food hall in Northeast D.C. remains Harvey’s Market, an old-school butcher shop that’s operated in its current location since 2012 but has been rooted in the D.C. food scene for decades, back before avocado toast was a thing and when appetizer-sized plates weren’t meant to be shared.
Six years ago, a fire torched the D.C. Farmers Market, which occupied the same property Union Market does now. Nearly all the vendors lost their leases, including the current proprietors of Harvey’s Market, George Lesznar and Marty Kaufman, who then worked for different operations. Their stories chronicling how the neighborhood used to be show how much it’s changed in less than a decade.
“This was a fixed-income market,” says Kaufman, who first came to work at the market in 1978. “It was a bit of a rathole, but it was a busy rathole.”
Kaufman worked as the manager of Murray’s Meats. One stand over, Lesznar was a butcher for the original Harvey’s Market, owned by Harvey Chidel, whose father opened his first butcher shop at O Street Market in 1931. It operated there until the market burned in the 1968 riots, then re-opened at the D.C. Farmers Market in 1971.
“We called it ‘The Dungeon,’” says Lesznar, a trained butcher who came to the business in 1987. “Harvey said we sold more meat per pound than every butcher and grocery store in the District combined.”
Murray’s and Harvey’s were friendly competitors, Lesznar says. “We had to be. We sold to the same customers at first, but eventually we went to higher end meats.”
Kaufman puts a finer point on it: “[At Murray’s] we bought cheap and sold cheap.”
In the ’80s and ’90s, the D.C. Farmers Market was a place to buy just about anything, Kaufman continues. “You could get counterfeit goods, you could buy drugs and guns. It was a tough situation. We had trouble with customers not wanting to come into the building.”
One time, when Kaufman was working for Murray’s, two men tried to hijack a van, he recalls, while an off-duty, pregnant female police officer was having lunch. The officer drew her weapon and forced one of the robbers to the ground, and sat on him until backup arrived. When uniformed officers came, they didn’t know she was off-duty and they shot her in the back.
“Fortunately she was wearing her vest,” Lesznar says. “But bullets were flying everywhere and everyone hit the ground.” There was fallout, as the off-duty officer who got shot was black, and the uniformed cop who shot her was white. “The media came out and tried to get us to say things about the police, but I wasn’t about to do that,” Lesznar recalls.
“This was a rough, rough market,” Kaufman says. “But frankly, we had a tough clientele, and many of them were used to it.”
When Chidel’s wife died in 2000, he sold the meat business to his son Miles and his daughter Harriette, who Lesznar married in 1982. “I was the butcher in the family,” Lesznar says. But when the fire burned down the market in 2011, leases expired, the company folded, and Lesznar asked his brother-in-law for the naming rights to Harvey’s Market.
With Harriette’s share of the the insurance proceeds, Lesznar started Harvey’s Market of Maryland LLC, which trades as Harvey’s Market. “The only thing I got was the name, and that giant plastic pig head over there above the meat locker.”
He brought in Kaufman, who, besides being a friendly competitor, had become a golfing buddy and was not seeing eye-to-eye with his own brother-in-law at Murray’s.
The new leases inside the rebuilt Union Market called for smaller business spaces, downsized from 2,000 square feet to 500 square feet. “We started from scratch,” Lesznar says. “Even though neither one of us has a forte in specialty markets, they gave us a chance to open a small butcher spot.”
Their first order of business was to visit Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania to identify family farmers and places that were farming sustainably. “There’s a lot of things we learned,” Kaufman says. “Like 100-percent, grass-fed beef. What does that really mean?” It turns out cows can be raised in pens before being allowed to graze for a certain amount of time before slaughter and still be labeled grass-fed. “We didn’t know that until we went around talking to farmers,” says Lesznar.
Not long ago, the pair tried to negotiate a second store in Cleveland Park near the Uptown Theater, but talks are on hold. “It’s very much in limbo up there,” Kaufman says. “Old time restaurants and stores are not surviving.”
“There’s always a new, better, best,” says Lesznar. “We try new things, and try to change things around [too]…”
“People want familiarity but also want new things, so we kind of have to balance it up,” Kaufman says, noting that the new Whole Foods on H Street NE has cut into their business.
“The main thing being a grocer here is there are so many food establishments taking up space. If you’re shopping for groceries, you can’t find everything you need here in one place, so you go shop somewhere else.” If you’re grilling burgers, for example, you could find the beef and buns at Union Market, but not all of the condiments and toppings.
Yet there’s still no substitute for craft. Lesznar is always ready with advice on which cuts best serve a customer’s need, and is quick to special order harder-to-find proteins. Customers are used to seeing him in his smeared apron, deboning, cutting, cleaning up—a master at dealing with bodily fluids, blood, and bacteria. “I think a butcher needs to understand the entire process of butchering the animal,” he says, “from start to finish.”
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