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- Elysian Valley
The NELA Riverfront Collaborative is an interdisciplinary project that builds upon the growing momentum of efforts already underway to transform the Los Angeles River into a "riverfront district" and to create a focal point of community revitalization. KCET Departures is the media partner of the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative. For more information visit the website www.mylariver.org
The Kruegermann family's Gourmet Pickles and Sauerkraut business has been active in the Northeast Los Angeles area since 1965, and nowadays they have a broad customer base across the country who have a taste for their Old World delicacies. But the roots of the enterprise run deeper -- the business was first established in 1896 in the small German town of Luebbenau, about 60 miles south of Berlin.
In the aftermath of the post-WWII communist takeover in East Germany and the creation of the DDR, the well-reputed Kruegermann business was put in jeopardy and eventually shut down by the government, according to Greg Kruegermann, who currently runs the company along with his brother. This pushed the family to look out for new opportunities in the United States.
When the Kruegermanns arrived in Los Angeles the German community that was already established was critical in its help to ensure early financing to re-open the Pickles and Sauerkraut factory, as regular banks or financial institutions would deny them loans. They found their new home in Elysian Valley, where they did not have to travel far for familiar amenities: Kruegermann remembers the German language church on Figueroa Street, and the Saturday German school on Eagle Rock Boulevard.
Taking cues from their personal experiences back home, the Kruegermann family kept a sense of place and community, which still deeply influences the way they run their business. "All our guys that work here are from the neighborhood, a call away from work," Kruegermann says. He also mentions that he has put back to work individuals who have found themselves homeless around the river area.
Alongside their strong attachment to the neighborhood, which they've lived in since they arrived to America, the family has kept strong ties with their German identity. Their house, located next to the factory, is filled with European-style decorations, family pictures, diplomas, and awards in German language.
During their free time the Kruegermanns enjoy going to the river, which they see as a gathering space. "I like going to the river, and get the chance to talk to the guys that are fishing, for example. It's a social place where we can engage conversations -- everyone knows me as the Sauerkraut guy."
Although the Kruegermanns have a strong commitment to using locally farmed products from California, recently they have had to adapt to the current economic conditions and have started to buy products from Mexico. Greg Kruegermann also mentions the heaviness of state regulations, field inspectors, and taxes that have left them more fragile against local and foreign competition. Kruegermann believes that "food safety is the biggest issue being a food manufacturer," but the costs to follow such regulations can sometimes overwhelm this small business, which retains around ten employees at any given time.
There's even a more local threat to their business. In the very same neighborhood where the Kruegermanns grew up and have been established since their arrival in the country, they have noticed changes in the demographic and business conditions. For the past five years several business and especially manufacturers were shut down in the area. The old bakeries and other factories are in the process of being replaced by new creative places and cafes, changing the physical and demographic map of the neighborhood. Greg Kruegermann expresses his fear towards those recent trends: "are we going to get kicked out because those new people don't like the smell of the pickles and sauerkraut factory?"
Kruegermann's best hopes lie in the possibility that his children might keep the family tradition going and run the business once he retires. But at the same time, given the economic environment, he also takes pride in the opportunities that his children have, to go to college and pursue careers in different fields, "because we worked hard for it," he says.
Photos by Danielle Tarasiuk