For a local family business to mark its centennial milestone, it takes generations of sweat equity and a deep connection to the community it serves. It’s safe to say Wohrle’s Foods is well-supplied with both.
It’s been a century since John W. Wohrle first opened shop in the Berkshires. How the German immigrant wound up in Pittsfield is a story in itself that foreshadowed the unique determination required to build a business from the ground up that would stand the test of time. In 1914, he narrowly avoided the outbreak of World War I when German steamship he was working on departed for New York. The ship was seized by U.S. authorities upon arrival, but Wohrle made a fateful decision that kept him in the U.S. and away from potential conscription into the German Imperial Army: “He jumped ship,” according to his daughter, Barbara Pickwell.
Germany’s loss, our gain. After cutting his teeth as a meat cutter in delis around New York City, Wohrle eventually gained his legal citizenship and moved to Pittsfield, which at the time had a considerable German immigrant population. He opened Wohrle’s in 1921. The rest, as they say, is history — and like sausages, that history is linked to the community’s. When you step into Wohrle’s modern-day East Street warehouse lined with freezers filled with quality food, remember that this family-owned local business got its start in this city’s streets selling specialty meats off of John Wohrle’s horse-drawn cart in the early 1920s. It is no small thing to surmount a century of adversity, from the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression to the still-present squeeze on small, locally owned grocers from large chains — not to mention weathering the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s an optimistic sign that what makes and keeps our community strong isn’t going anywhere, the tribulations of the last year notwithstanding. Wohrle’s has not just survived but thrived, a success that can be traced back to the grit of a hard-working immigrant who decided to make the Berkshires his home base for living the American dream. John Wohrle’s descendants — three generations of which currently keep this family-owned enterprise ticking — are keeping that dream alive, and our community undoubtedly is better for it. Ms. Pickwell, who grew up in an apartment over the storefront and took over the business in 1969 after her father’s death, told The Eagle that Wohrle’s racks up more than $10 million in sales per year — no doubt bolstered by those famous baby hot dogs, which puts Pittsfield on the map for sated customers all over the U.S. (“I ship them from Seattle to Maine,” Wohrle’s Food Warehouse manager told The Eagle.)
It goes beyond the bottom line, though. They also help with local fundraising efforts and support nonprofit and volunteer groups in whatever ways they can, garnering well-earned respect from customers and peers in the local business community. The fact that Wohrle’s longevity is only matched by the high regard paid by their neighbors offers a hundred years’ worth of proof that being good corporate citizens matters.
“It’s the American dream, right? That’s the story of Wohrle’s, of us and of a lot of these family-owned businesses,” said Pasquale Arace, who, along with brothers Gerardo and Dario, owns Highland Restaurant on Fenn Street, which includes many offerings with the Wohrle label. “You support the community; the community supports you. It’s about friendships and families and commitment and community.”
After 100 years of serving generations of happy local customers as a Berkshire institution, we hope Wohrle’s and the community can continue supporting each other for another century as well. In 1960, John Wohrle told The Eagle “Pittsfield’s been good to me.” As the Berkshire institution that bears his name celebrates its centennial, it’s worth returning the compliment: Wohrle’s has been good to Pittsfield, too.