For 108 years, Clevelanders have stocked their kitchens at West Side Market—through changing grocery habits, evolving tastes, one pandemic and now another. The secret to that kind of endurance? The people inside.

By Timothy Meinch and Hannah Agran
October 21, 2020
Advertisement
West Side Market Cafe
| Credit: EE Berger

Long before daybreak, garage doors creak open and lights flicker on in the glass cases at Cleveland’s West Side Market. Like feet hitting the cold floor beside a bed, vendors shuffle into place, tossing Saturday morning greetings across aisles. They stack marbled steaks and bratwursts, tuck price cards into wheels of cheese, and dig scoops into boxes of dried fruit and nuts. At 7 a.m., the first customers arrive, beating the winter sun to market.

When West Side opened with 109 stands in 1912, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, Cleveland had three public markets. Together, they fed (and often, provided livelihoods for) the city’s growing immigrant populations. Buyers and sellers crowded under the soaring tiled ceiling, placing orders and trading stories in Russian, Yiddish, German, Hungarian, Polish, Slovak and Italian. The cacophony spilled onto the streets, where vendors hawked produce. In the melting pot of the market hall, you could find people who shared your language, your experience, your taste in capicola or kraut—or just as notably, mingle with those who didn’t. Vendors peddled community as much as food. And at West Side, the only market of the three to remain, they still do.

West Side Market
| Credit: EE Berger

Compared to the fresh crop of food halls that have sprouted across the country, which tend to offer more restaurant-style meals than ingredients, West Side largely caters to customers who want to go home and cook. Many stands still bear family names. Nearly half of the current tenants’ owners started working at the market as teenagers, inheriting stands or saving up to buy their own. Old-timers retire but can’t seem to leave. It’s the Cheers of pantry stocking. Everybody knows your name, but nobody’s trying to be #authentic. They just are.

Is that enough? Even before 2020 took a turn for the crazy, West Side Market faced challenges. Building upkeep is costly. Supermarkets sell more diverse food than before. Farmers markets have multiplied. Online competition has too. This summer, beloved tenant Tony Pinzone shuttered his meat stand, following some other notable closures the past few years. In response, there have been healthy conversations about how to evolve and thrive for another century. The future might bring cooking demos, more prepared food, different hours. But everyone knows heritage matters. It’s why, in a storm-tossed sea of a year, West Side Market feels like a mooring post. Everyone’s holding onto each other, and to tradition—and they’re trusting we’ll hold on too. westsidemarket.org

Meister Foods
| Credit: EE Berger

After some short closures in the spring, most stalls in West Side Market have reopened. If you like, you can place orders for curbside pickup from vendors like Meister Foods, a fixture for nearly 45 years.

Euro Sweets
| Credit: EE Berger

You’ll find hundreds of treats at Euro Sweets, where the menu lists more than 30 flavors of macarons.

Jacob’s Oasis: Zahiyeh “Zaza” Khalid

Zahiyeh “Zaza” Khalid
| Credit: EE Berger

Zaza Khalid never thought she’d be adding pumpkin to her hummus—much less selling it. She moved from Lebanon to the United States two decades ago. Set adrift in a new world, she found a lifeline in food. “I had no friends. I didn’t speak English,” she says. “So I started to cook.” She called her mother a hemisphere away and wrote down recipes. Some of them are on the menu today, at Jacob’s Oasis. Khalid opened the stand a couple of years ago, finding a well-worn foothold on the American Dream in West Side Market. She mostly sells prepared foods, like tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves and a staggering 37 flavors of hummus. Besides that pumpkin, you can try dill pickle, caramelized onion, scallion and roasted beet. But Khalid’s favorite? The classic original, naturally.

West Side Market Cafe: Jimmy Traynor

Jimmy Traynor with his wife, Regina
| Credit: EE Berger

For 18 years, Jimmy Traynor patrolled West Side Market on foot as a beat cop. “I always felt like a sheepdog trying to protect the sheep,” he says fondly. After leaving that career, he launched a second one, becoming co-owner of West Side Market Cafe, a diner attached to the market. (And, just to tie himself to the place a little tighter, he married Regina, who owns the P-Nut Gallery stand.) The kitchen sources roughly half its ingredients from the market for dishes like vegetarian huevos rancheros and kielbasa-heavy Hungarian Hash. “The market was the U.N. before the U.N. was even thought of,” Traynor says. “We have all the nationalities under this roof. They come together for one common good: to make a living. And they do it together.”

West Side Market Cafe
| Credit: EE Berger
West Side Market Cafe
| Credit: EE Berger

Meister Foods: Christina “Nina” Morad

Christina "Nina" Morad and Eddy Meister
| Credit: EE Berger

Nina Morad sells a little bit of everything—dressings, eggs, peanut butter—but the heart of Meister Foods is cheese, from around Ohio and the globe. Eddy Meister opened the stand in 1977. About 23 years into the gig, he hired Morad, at the ripe age of 14. Now she owns the place. But her old boss shows up with an apron every Wednesday, as a stocking and delivery boy. “I told her, ‘I’ll come back for the same wage that I paid you,’” Meister says. With paternal pride, he calls the market the finest place in the world for cooks. “You have people you can trust taking care of you here,” he explains. “Caring and pride is what you sell.”

Meister Foods
| Credit: EE Berger

Irene Dever Dairy: Diane Dever

Diane Dever
| Credit: EE Berger

Diane Dever arrives around 5:30 nearly every morning. She greets her neighbors and begins cutting portions from 55-pound blocks of butter. “Before I was 10 years old, I used to come in at 4 a.m. with Mom and sleep under the counter until shoppers started showing up,” she says. Irene Dever, 88, still keeps the books from home, tabulating the purchases and sales of duck and quail eggs, pierogis, yogurt, and cheese in a paper ledger. “The only thing we got at the grocery store was soap and dog food,” Diane recalls. “Everything else came from the market.”

Explore Historic Markets

We’d call it a nostalgia trip, but most of us didn’t grow up going to public markets like these. No better time than the holidays to start.

Eastern Market This labyrinthine Detroit icon fills five historic buildings (sheds, in local parlance). The best days to visit are Tuesdays and Saturdays, when farmers join the wholesale vendors, and Sundays, for more gifty items.

Findlay Market Dating to 1855, when Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood was the heart of the city’s German community, Findlay is Ohio’s oldest continuously operating public market, open every day but Monday, with a farmers market on weekends.

City Market In the 1850s, pioneers stopped at what’s now City Market in Kansas City, Missouri—the last big trading post before the frontier. A weekend farmers market runs year-round, and permanent merchants span the globe: Indian, Middle Eastern, Italian, Japanese and more.

West Side Market
| Credit: EE Berger