By Sarah Koegler
My Weekly Stop
I tie the dog’s leash to the railing on the stoop, help my boys prop their bikes against the wall, and walk into Miklas Meat Market. I’m usually greeted by two or three customers that I know and almost always get a “Hello, how’s-your-father-in-law-doing?” yell and wave from owner Dave Rotriga from the back of the store. I place the empty egg carton I’m returning onto the counter and hurry over to the cooler to make sure they aren’t sold out of those eggs from a local farmer, then head to the counter to place my order. There are never fewer than three employees ready to help me, and their fast and courteous service makes me a little nervous because unfailingly I haven’t quite decided what I need for the week, so I get them busy with the old standbys:
“Umm, OK, yes, a pound of extra sharp cheddar, sliced, and a half-pound of roasted turkey, sliced thin but not chipped, please.”
Now I take a breath and ask myself, “What should I get to make sure we will eat a couple of decent dinners this week?”
I love this shop. To me, this shop hearkens back to the time when many parts of our country were carved into small self-sufficient neighborhoods, much like our large cities are today. When living in the “suburbs” didn’t mean you had to pile into your car and drive to a huge strip mall to get all of your food from a large grocery store, because small individual businesses offered what you needed in your own neighborhood. I love that I can walk here. I love that I see familiar faces on both sides of the counter. I love knowing that I can always count on getting fresh and high-quality food (much of it made on-site), and can ask them to cut a piece of meat any way I need it, in whatever size I need. (What do I not love? That they are closed on Wednesdays, only because I always seem to forget that!) I know I’m not alone in considering Miklas Meat Market one of Wheeling’s true treasures.
A Family Affair
Dave Rotriga mischievously bent over the counter and spoke quietly with a smile: “Mick told Nancy, ‘You’re either going to get a new kitchen out of this, or you’re going to get food stamps.’ Well, she got a new house out of it instead.”
In 1977, Steven “Mick” Miklas, who was a meat cutter at Kroger, decided to set out on his own and open a meat market because, his wife, Nancy, told me, “He didn’t like what Kroger was doing, and he thought he could open up his own meat market and do it better.” Many other meat markets throughout Wheeling had closed by then. He considered various areas in Wheeling and thought that the current location on Carmel Avenue in Woodsdale was a good option.
“He went door to door through the neighborhood and asked if they’d like a meat market, “ explained Nancy. “And everyone was positive.”
The couple ran the shop together for the next 32 years, until Mick fell ill and died of cancer six years ago.
“We didn’t expect Mick to go like that. It was like, ‘OK, now what do we do? Do we run it or shut it down? And we had a lot of people in the neighborhood say, ‘Please keep this open!’ So now it’s his headache!” Laura Rotriga is referring to her husband and current owner of Miklas, Dave Rotriga.
“No one in the family wanted to run it,” explained Dave. “I’m the nephew. But actually my parents have been gone so long it was like they were my parents. He was like a dad to me.”
Dave worked at the meat market almost from the day it was open. He started out as a clean-up boy when he was 15 years old, and other than a few years doing other work, he’s been at the market ever since. He and Laura purchased the business when Mick passed away. The store has hosted many milestones in his life. Another uncle, Jerry, who worked at the shop (a family business to its core) used to drive him home from work in the evening and taught him how to drive a car during those rides. Dave even met his wife there!
Laura started working at the counter there when she was 16.
“Mick was a scary boss! He wasn’t mean; he was stern. He told you what you did wrong, and you knew it,” she reminisces.
Laura, a former lab technician in the medical field, is now dedicated to running the business alongside her husband as a full-time enterprise. And Nancy, who has worked in the shop since it opened in 1977, still works there; her primary job is making her famous pepperoni rolls, which sell out daily. (Sorry, folks. You can’t get one on Saturdays – that’s Nancy’s day off!)
What keeps people coming back? Along with the old-school charm of the place (I love the tasteful homemade signs they clip along a wire in the windows, and their seasonal, “Miklas Coozie” displays behind the counter.) and the prompt friendly service, there are a few items that are real favorites among the store’s customers. Nancy’s pepperoni rolls are a standout, of course. And the ham salad, which Dave explains was developed by Paul Hufschmitt, a family friend and former meat cutter, who used to come and just hang out or “volunteer work” as Laura explained, at the shop since its opening. Dave says they keep the recipe in the safe now. Their hamburgers are also a regular hit: Dave says their ground beef is just different from anywhere else, since it’s always ground on-site, and none of it comes “from a tube.” (Now that I know it COULD come from a tube, I’m even more grateful for Miklas!)
In addition to their regular crew of customers, the Rotrigas have stories about some unique fans as well. Two former customers who moved to Florida come once or twice a year to buy up hundreds of dollars of their meats, pack it all in coolers, and take it home. One customer freezes a year’s worth of ham salad when he comes home for Jamboree in the Hills each year and brings it back to his home down south (Nancy says she doesn’t recommend freezing that ham salad, by the way, but this man does it anyway). Country music star Luke Bryan, when he was in town for Jamboree, did some research and came out to Miklas to buy a cooler full of what he heard were the best steaks around, to grill up for his band while they were in the area. And even Sarah Jessica Parker ate one of Nancy’s pepperoni rolls when it was delivered to her by someone in the sheriff’s office during her famous visit to Wheeling a few years back.
Nancy says the customers have come to expect high quality from the shop, as well as customized service.
“They’ll buy just half a pound of ground beef, or a single pork chop. They can do that here. Davy (Nancy’s nickname for Dave) will even cut anything to the thickness you want. We can do that because it’s not pre-wrapped. You can’t do that other places.”
Dave says that while they no longer make their cuts from “hanging beef” (when they literally bring in half a cow and hang it in the cooler to be cut on site), they still do order their meat from high-quality producers. While much of their beef is from out west or from Texas, they stay “as close as we can.” Many of their chickens and lunch meats come from the Sugar Creek, Ohio, area, and their pork are sourced locally out of Taylorstown, Pa. They also offer wares from local producers, such as eggs from Lone Oak Farm and locally made preserved goods. Nancy, Dave, and Laura all agree that what people really love about their store, though, is the staff’s friendly service and the shop’s eagerness to always better meet their needs. Dave and Laura strive to meet more than just the needs of their customers, but of our broader community; some know about the pivotal role they have played in the “Hope for Hines” movement (and it truly has become a movement) and in serving less fortunate kids in our community through things like their donation of bikes to Big Brothers Big Sisters, and “adopting” three children this past Christmas through Kool 105 FM.
The Rotrigas have managed to balance a need and desire to grow and evolve their business, with a dedication to honoring the past (customizing cuts for their customers, continuing to offer traditional favorites, even retaining the original sign that welcomes you as you walk through the door!) When they bought the store, they began accepting credit cards for the first time; they invested heavily in advertising which, Laura claims, tripled their business; they tried out new displays and products, such as a bakery counter (which has since discontinued); and they even started selling Miklas merchandise.
This month, Miklas will start offering a small selection of wines to its customers.
“I thought the wine would go with the meat real good,” explained Dave. “We have a deli counter with cheeses too. Maybe we’ll expand there, get some more cheeses that go with the wine. We just thought it would complement the meat.”
So now when you come to pick up a couple of steaks for dinner on a cold winter night, or a dozen delicious eggs to make a frittata out of your garden bounty in late summer, you can also bring home a bottle of quality table wine in the $10 – $25 range and call it a night. I, for one, am a thrilled customer!
But no matter how this shop changes, there is one thing I know will remain the same. “We just push our employees to be friendly. We’re not perfect, but that’s the most important thing – the person on the other side of this counter,” says Dave.
“We wouldn’t be here without our customers,” said Laura. “We want them to feel like they’re special, and frankly we know most of them by name! That’s a real hazard, actually, trying to walk up the counter and stopping to talk to 10 people along them way! We just appreciate them coming in.”
Well, I say to everyone at Miklas Meat Market – it’s working. We do feel special. We do feel welcomed. And WE appreciate YOU.