How does a man who had everything taken away during the Holocaust, come to Canada with virtually nothing, and build a kosher food empire that is still remembered sixty years later?
That describes the gumption, and grit, of Herman Perl.
A fixture of the Jewish community, Perl’s Meats at Toronto’s Bathurst Street and Lawrence Avenue, had for fifty years been the name most closely associated with the kosher meat and food industry in Canada.
Before fire destroyed the store in 2006, Perl’s business had sold five tonnes of gefilte fish, “thousands of pounds” of salads, four tonnes of chopped liver, and a half tonne of kishke -- every week.
They sold 400 smoked turkeys for Passover and made a thousand latkes on Chanukah.
All this, from Herman Perl, who came to Canada in 1950 with just $24 in his pocket.
He passed away Aug. 11, at age 90.
Born in Transylvannia, Romania, Herman (Hershel) Perl survived the Holocaust after spending the war years in Shachendorf and Esperachen concentration camps. All of his five siblings and mother perished.
Perl had documented his experiences on video as part of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah program.
Upon liberation he made his way to Brussels, where he initially worked as a diamond cleaver, and soon immigrated to Canada, with no luggage.
He toiled as a textile engineer here, having learned the trade in Brussels, Belgium.
At the time, an ordinary textile worker made $30 a week, and Perl was making $64 a week, a tidy sum for the time. However, he had to forego the job when he was told that he had to work on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.
Peculiarly, a few people in the local synagogue at the time suggested that he operate a butcher store. And so he did, opening a small shop in 1953 at Bloor and Euclid sts., in Toronto.
“In the 50s, the only other kosher butcher shop had terrible customer service,” he recalled in a 2012 interview, adding that the proprietor would frequently yell at the clientele. “I knew that if I treated my customers properly that I would fill a need.”
He hired a “very experienced butcher” because, remarkably, he knew nothing about the meat business.
“[The butcher said] ‘I’ll stay with you for eight weeks, until you learn the business.’ I couldn’t afford to have him longer than that. I paid him $100 a week. I only took enough money out of the business to pay some rent.”
Still, he was never fazed by his lack of knowledge.
In the beginning, a customer named Mrs. Mulleck came in the store and asked for a piece of middle chuck.
Perl unflinchingly pointed to a poster of a cow hanging in the store, and asked her, “Can you point out which part of the cow is middle chuck?”
With16-hour work days, he’d diligently venture to take what he built to a higher level. “I kept expanding our product line to keep up with demand. I had a good sense for what the public wanted and always strove to innovate and bring in new things.”
Some of those new things included innovations that have continued to this day.
Perl’s was first in Ontario to sell meat and chicken that was prepared kosher for the customer. Previous to Perl’s, one had to kosher one’s own chicken and meat, which involved soaking meat for half an hour, then salting it for an hour.
They were the first to sell chicken already cut up and to have self-service, prepackaged meat. His ideas are now universally used, according to daughter Miriam Perl.
In 1960 they began selling prepared foods, starting with kreplach and knishes. They became the largest kosher supplier in Toronto, selling more than a hundred items in the flagship store and in supermarkets.
Eventually, H. Perl Products became the largest and most successful kosher meat store in Canada, employing 60 workers, becoming one of the major suppliers of kosher deli products.
Speaking of his dedication to his customers, daughter Miriam described the time when Herman received a phone call just prior to Passover to fill an order.
Because of the prohibition of riding or driving vehicles during Passover, Perl didn’t know how to get the food delivered. He consulted a rabbi to find out if a taxi delivery would be permitted, but that too was not allowed.
Perl, not wanting a family to go without their food, foisted the package of fifty pounds of meat on his back, and walked from the downtown store, eleven kilometers into the suburbs.
He would often provided discounts to families in need, gave meat for free to schools for events, and when one woman was found stealing from the store, and it was brought to his attention, he told others to leave her alone. “She wouldn’t be stealing if she didn’t need it,” Miriam recalled him saying.
In 1964, he moved the storefront that people recall so fondly, as customers moved northbound in Toronto. Perl’s expanded to three storefronts, occupying 3011, 3013 and 3015 Bathurst Street, near Lawrence Avenue.
After the 2006 fire that consumed and gutted the stores, six years later Perl, at age 87, decided to rebuild, returning to the meat business that he knew for more than fifty years.
For about a year starting in 2012, Perl’s Meat products were once again available for purchase at several retail outlets, including major supermarkets, like Loblaws, Sobey’s, Metro, Fortino’s and Costco.
“People constantly stopped me in the street and ask me when Perl’s will be back. They were waiting for it. There was a demand for it. It took me a few years to put all the necessary elements together,” said Perl.
During that time they had sold seven tonnes of fresh meat and products a week, manufacturing Perl's classic salami, hotdogs, pepperoni, turkey and chicken deli slices. The octogenarian go-getter’s mug graced the wrapping of the new deli meats.
“He was always looking forward, never bemoaning or complaining; whether it was about losing his family in the war, after the store burned down, or health issues in recent years. He was remarkable that way,” said Miriam.
Perl is survived by 6 children, 33 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren.
After losing his family in the war, he took great pride in rebuilding his family, and would say “from one man there are now so many” recalls Miriam.