This piece about my family's business, and its demise means a lot to me - and I was pleased it was a finalist for Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism
The end of a Chicago tradition
Is absolutely nothing sacred?
The year 2008 is surely one we will never forget. The financial world cratered in a way none of us really thought possible. The years of not only living the classic American Dream but living the New American Dream had taken hold.
Every new technological gadget was within everyone's grasp -- flat-screen TVs, iPods, cell phones, GPS systems for your cars or perhaps your toddler. We were building the best homes, wearing the best clothes, eating at fine restaurants, vacationing like movie stars.
Those of us who grew up with Depression-era parents maybe snickered a little when they would say "That bottle of wine cost how much?" or when we spent four figures for a piece of clothing. We thought our cushy life would have no end.
But for my family, and the Jewish community in particular, we are mourning one fatality of the financial meltdown that for us is unthinkable.
Hot dogs. Corned beef. Tongue. Pastrami. Bologna. By the end of the month, the company that my great-grandfather Isaac Oscherwitz started in 1886 will close. Best's Kosher Sausage Co., was family owned for more than 100 years. In 1993, Sara Lee Corp. acquired Best's Kosher. Mike Cummins, a Sara Lee spokesperson, said of the closing: "It was not because it's not profitable -- it's just not where it needs to be."
This is a loss not only for my family, but for the millions of Jews who keep kosher and the many millions who don't but learned to love my family's hot dogs.
My great-grandfather emigrated from Germany. On his way to Ellis Island, he met Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz. Rabbi Manischewitz asked Isaac to go into business with him. But my great-grandfather had five sons and said he needed to go it alone. They both landed in Cincinnati. Isaac started Oscherwitz's (later changed to Best's Kosher and moved to Chicago) and Rabbi Manischewitz started his matzo and wine business.
Isaac's five sons -- Sam, Max, Israel, Philip and Harry -- joined the business in the early 1900s. The business expanded throughout the Midwest. In 1909, the business was renamed I. Oscherwitz & Sons Co.
It was my grandfather, Philip, and his brother, Harry, who moved to Chicago in 1925 after their father died. They opened Best's Kosher Sausage Co., a sister company to Oscherwitz's, which successfully survived the Depression.
My father, Sheldon Sternberg, ran the company, along with other relatives, over the years. While the guts of the business was hot dogs, Best's later expanded to include luncheon meats not typically kosher, like Polish and Italian sausages. In 1972, it was ahead of its time, introducing the first low-fat, low-salt hot dog.
Business was great. Our hot dogs became The Hot Dog at Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park, United Center and Soldier Field. And, in 1990, you could even buy Best's Kosher at Costco in England.
My siblings and I all worked at the factory from the time we were 12. My friends all thought I must be a spoiled little rich girl and nicknamed me the Kosher Queen. But we were far from rich. Truth be told, Best Kosher supported a lot of families (we once had a family reunion and more than 200 family members attended).
Oh, the memories. There was my summer on the switchboard. I almost got fired for answering the phone, "Best's Kosher, what's your beef?" One of my favorite stories is when there had been a lot of stealing in the factory, detectives were hired and immediately caught the culprit. It was my Grandfather Phil, who apparently left each night with bags of meat.
The employees at the factory stayed for years. It was common before a Jewish holiday to hear African-American, Hispanic, Polish or Asian workers greet each other and say, "Hey man, tomorrow's Tu Bishvat!"
It was like family.
In 1983 Best's Kosher merged with a competitor, Sinai Kosher. In 1986 we celebrated Best's 100th anniversary at a party at the Museum of Science and Industry. And in 1993, my dad brokered the sale of Best's Kosher to Sara Lee. We were proud that our company, with annual sales of $93 million, would be in solid hands.
Last month, when we got word that Sara Lee would be closing Best's at the end of January, my family was heartsick.
Any business going under these days is a tragedy. A business built on the backs of one family for more than 100 years is especially so. There will be fewer choices for those who keep kosher now. And lots more, I am sure, will be missing the Best dog.
Susan Berger is a freelance journalist who lives in Glencoe.