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Corned Beef and Beyond

Nearly 50 years old, Helmbold’s Market has seen ownership changes and has broadened its business scope, but it’s still a neighborhood mainstay

by B.A. Nilsson on March 13, 2013

Helmbold’s Market, 12 Industrial Park Road, Troy, 273-0810, ext. 109, pastramiandcornedbeef.com. Open 11-6 Tue-Fri, 9-2 Sat. AE, D, MC, V.

They’re at the peak of corned-beef craziness right now, so busy churning out our favorite St. Patrick’s Day dinner that even the executives have donned cap and gown to work the processing line.

Thus it was that Ross Shuket, a company vice president, was wearing a sanitary overcoat, hairnet and gloves when he met me recently at Helmbold’s Market in Troy. “As you can see,” he said, “corned beefs are coming right off the line. This morning, full truckloads of meat came in, by the end of the day, full truckloads of the product will go out.” We were peering through a window onto the production floor, which seemed to be a blur of slabs of pink.

Corning beef is a process of curing the meat in brine, the production of which has been stepped up here for the past couple of months. “We take the briskets or the rounds from the packer,” says Shuket, “and trim it to our specs. Then it goes into a pumping room where we put it through a water-injection process. It cures overnight. It’s our proprietary flavors that make it special.”

The market is located around the back of a warehouse and processing plant located in a residential area off Campbell Avenue. The store has been there for nearly 50 years, a neighborhood-style deli that has been serving generations of loyal patrons. Fritz Helmbold started his meat-processing business in this city in 1913 and built it into a popular supplier of salami and hot dogs and the like. The company was acquired by Swiss-born Kurt Widmer in 1968, who expanded its operations.

In 1942, State National Provisions was founded in Albany. It merged with the Bronx-based deli founded in 1983 by Joe and Mark Shuket, becoming a company called Old World Provisions, headquartered in Albany with the Shukets in charge. The picture was completed in 2008, when Old World merged with Helmbold’s. The facility in Albany is still used for preparing pastrami and other deli meats—pastrami so good that it’s a mainstay at Nosh Delicatessen in Guilderland and also is sold to other delis and to customers throughout the country.

You can sample it at the Troy market, where you’ll also find the trademark little frankfurters that are the company’s biggest seller. These are the dogs you’ve enjoyed at Famous Lunch in Troy and Gus’ in Watervliet—but you can assemble your own hot-dog-making kit right there at Helmbold’s by buying the small rolls, made for them by a local bakery, and a jar of meat sauce.

“It’s our own Helmbold’s sauce,” says Ross, “made for us, to our recipe. It’s a good, hearty meat sauce.” He indicates other items in the store. “If it’s something we didn’t make, we like to carry things that are as local as possible. We have cheese from Palatine, bread from Mastroianni and local honey from Lloyd Spear. We want the store to be a community-type thing.”

I’m invited to taste one of the little franks, cold. “Best way to eat it,” I’m told. I bite into it and get the same sturdy snap that you get when it’s been heated. Without that heat, however, I tasted complexity of flavor I hadn’t know was there, set off by a refreshing spiciness. Taste a virgin dog some time: It’s revelatory.

“The retail store is a great outlet for us to experiment with products,” says Ross, “so we can better understand what the consumers like. A lot of things come in, a lot of things go out, but in the end we’re trying to preserve that Helmbold’s old-school marketplace feeling.”

Other items in the market include dried sausage, which you’ll see hanging, cuts of chicken and beef—including handsome-looking packages of dry-aged beef—pork chops, ground beef and a variety of Italian sausage and fresh kielbasa. In the sandwich-building department are roast beef, their own smoked turkey, salami, liverwurst, a variety of sliceable cheeses like swiss and provolone, bologna, turkey pastrami, corned beef and, of course, the world’s best pastrami.

There also are unusual items like smoked tongue and beef bacon. “A lot of times people don’t want pork on things, for religious or whatever reasons,” Ross explains, “so beef bacon is a popular item, particularly in New York City and in ethnic neighborhoods.”

The intimacy of the market is quite a contrast to the idea of the wholesale end of the business, which supplies supermarkets—Price Chopper is a huge customer—with Helmbold and Old World and State National brands as well as private-label items. Is there really enough of a profit in the deli to keep it viable?

We’re joined by Ross’ father, Mark, who says, “People still come here every week to get their Helmbold’s hot dogs. Not just people. Generations.”

Adds Ross, “And we’re still trying new things.” He indicates a row of large glass jars on top of the deli case. “This is one of our newest items: beef jerky, 10 different flavors. It’s so popular, we can’t make it fast enough.”

“For Easter,” says Mark, “we’ll start featuring more ham, kielbasa, things like that. We’re always trying to satisfy what the customer wants.”

Ninety-nine percent of the business is wholesale, Ross notes, “selling all over the country and into Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean Islands. The market is fun for us because you get to see instant reactions, you get to meet with the actual customers and test new things.”

Mark echoes the thought. “This is fun,” he says. “You’ve got to enjoy yourself. We’re trying to bring the store back to its heyday, and I think we’re on our way.”