MERIDEN — A steady procession of customers made their way through the line and to the counter at V. Czapiga & Son early Wednesday afternoon. Customers arrived either empty handed or with empty reusable grocery bags and left with armloads of fresh smoked kielbasa, loaves of rye bread and bottles of horseradish.
Nearby, horns honked and bells clanged as trains rolled past. Parking was tight as customers parked in the business’ small lot and lined the roadways along Cooper Street and nearby Cherry Street.
The ritual is a longstanding Easter tradition that’s continued for more than a century and passed down through multiple generations at the family-owned business.
Co-owner Walter Paluszewski kept that tradition alive as he cut pound after pound worth of smoked kielbasa rings for customers Wednesday afternoon, ahead of local families’ Easter gatherings.
For Paluszewski, the past couple of years have been challenging. He said business declined during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. While customers have come back, the costs to run the business have risen — including taxes and food costs. So its profit margins have thinned considerably.
Paluszweski spoke briefly with a reporter as he stocked shelves with fresh rye loaves, before having to step behind the counter. He anticipates before the week is over, his business will have sold more than 10,000 pounds of kielbasa.
“That’s why I’ve gotta get back,” he said. “I still have a lot of meat to cut.”
The patrons who called in their orders were regular customers who kept their Easter traditions going.
Mayor Kevin Scarpati is one of those regular customers of Czapiga. This year will be different from past years, in that Scarpati will host his family’s Easter gathering. The mayor said it is the first time he will host, although he places an order with the business each holiday.
“I ordered two large smoked rings,” Scarpati said, estimating it is around four pounds of kielbasa.
The mayor called in his order the night before. He was joined Wednesday by Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who placed his own order. The pair chatted with Czapiga employees and with Paluszweski as they awaited their bounties.
Murphy grew up in a family with Polish roots on his mother’s side. His mother grew up in New Britain.
“I grew up on Polish food,” Murphy said. “I’m so thankful there are still family businesses that are thriving in our Polish American communities here in Meriden, here in New Britain.”
Murphy acknowledged these businesses have struggled over the past few years.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with retailers during and after the pandemic,” the senator said.
Numerous businesses, tens of thousands, Murphy said, took advantage of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which helped those businesses to stay afloat during the economic uncertainty early on into the pandemic.
Now employers have challenges posed by inflation and difficulty recruiting and retaining employees.
“In a 4% unemployment rate environment, it’s hard to find workers, especially in small businesses who can’t afford to pay big hourly rates,” Murphy said. “These are tough times if you’re a small business owner — which is why we targeted a lot of these recovery dollars to small businesses.”
The city of Meriden has set aside a portion of its own federal COVID-19 relief funds toward small businesses through individual grants that range from $10,000 to more than $100,000.
Murphy spoke of the importance of ensuring small businesses remain viable.
“A city like Meriden can’t survive if everybody buys their stuff from Amazon and Walmart,” the senator said. “Our small cities can’t survive without locally owned small businesses.”
Murphy called for a broader conversation around why so much commerce flows through what he described as “giant quasi monopolies.”
“But in the meantime, let’s try to use the federal money we have available to keep small businesses going,” Murphy said, adding that the U.S. Small Business Administration has supported businesses through its loan program.
“I tried to use the pulpit I have to talk about small businesses,” Murphy said. “... to try to give a little bit of extra attention to small businesses, to try to accentuate the role they play in our community.”