Customers, owner share memories as Kreger’s in Naperville closes its doors
By David Sharos For The Sun January 12, 2013 8:48PM
Bill Kreger toasts his family and friends after closing his family grocery store for the last time Saturday evening. Kreger's Central Foods had been in business for 120 years. Kreger said he was felt fortunate to receive well wishes from many customers during the week, but said felt he was doing so for his father and grandfather, too. Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 14, 2013 6:55AM
The next time Steve Coffman of Naperville runs out of milk, he’s liable to have to actually drive somewhere to get it. That’s because the “convenience store” he has lived next door to for the last 10 years closed Saturday after operating at 605 N. Ellsworth St. since 1926.
“Bill calls it ‘my personal pantry,’” Coffman said, referring to Kreger’s Central Foods, owned by fourth generation butcher and grocery man Bill Kreger, 52. “Over the years if we ran out of something, we’d just pop over. The sausages here are all homemade and the quality is always the same. I hope Bill will share his secret recipe sometime.”
Saturday was bittersweet for the veteran butcher, who clearly has become an icon in the neighborhood and a friend to so many who have frequented his store over the years. Word got out earlier this week regarding Kreger’s decision to hang up his blue butcher’s apron, and since then the store has seen a steady stream of well-wishers wanting to say goodbye and pick up the last few pounds of bratwurst or calico beans from the store.
“All of Naperville is going to go into bratwurst withdrawal,” predicted Tom Vosburgh, who came with his wife Lana for the last time. “We always took his bratwurst with us to Minnesota to this resort area where we’d visit family. Bill is a great guy and we’re sad to see him go. Every time we come in, we buy three dozen of the bratwurst at a time.”
Kreger’s sister Jean, one of five sisters in the Kreger family, was at her brother’s side Saturday and recalled “that all the Kreger children worked in the shop at one time.”
“I didn’t know Bill was closing before anyone else did,” she said. “All of the six kids worked here. It’s hard to see this close, but I enjoyed myself when we all worked here. You were together with family.”
Kreger said his decision to leave was based on his son finally getting a job in education as well as growing tired after all the years of slicing, seasoning, and stuffing.
“Business here was good and my decision to close isn’t because we were losing money or not doing well,” he said. “I’m 52 and still young enough that I can do something else. At this point, I haven’t even entertained any ideas about selling the business. I’ve just been focusing on getting to today and closing the store. But the message I want to get out there is that it’s important people continue to support the independent businesses.”
Kreger’s shop is a memorabilia building in itself, complete with a couple of massive wood cutting tables scored by millions of knife cuts and worn smooth by the family butchers that came beforehand. Kreger said the tables once stood “six to eight inches taller than they do today.”
“These tables aren’t going anywhere,” Kreger said with a smile on his face. “I got these from my father and they’re staying with me, even though the years have worn them down.”
The glass meat counter Saturday was no longer speckled with small yellow note pad slips of paper that Kreger wrote orders on for so many years. To the uninitiated, the system looks random and disorganized, but Kreger swears it’s been working for years.
Throughout many decades, Kreger handcrafted a variety of sausage products including Polish, Italian, and Hungarian, but it was his bratwurst that brought people from far and wide.
“Our bratwurst outsells all our other sausages 10 to 1,” Kreger said. “It’s kind of like the ‘mother sauce’ of the business. Everything else we do is sort of built off of that.”
Anne Pickett of Naperville said she lives on the city’s south end and has been traveling for 20 years across town to buy Kreger’s bratwurst and calico beans.
“I found this place years ago by trying to avoid traffic downtown and taking the side streets,” she said. “It’s a gem and has been the pride of the neighborhood with a hometown feel. It’s so sad to see it close.”
Naperville resident Stacey Abe said she has been going to Kreger’s since 1984 and like a lot of butchers, Kreger has been helpful in offering suggestions about how to prepare his meats.
“Bill’s Italian beef is the best and he always says not to overcook it when you warm it up,” she said. “When we make brats, he says to just cook them over medium heat on the grill. ‘Drink the beer’ he says, ‘don’t boil it.’”
Wheaton’s Robin Carroll admitted she has “lost count” when it comes to guessing how many of Kreger’s brats she and her family have consumed over the years.
“I used to live on the other side of Washington Street when I first came here and I’ve been coming here since 1980,” Carroll said. “I always liked it was a small, neighborhood store.”
Kreger plans to continue living upstairs in the building where so many will miss him. He plans to take a trip soon to Austin, Texas, and then join up with a good friend and travel to Panama.
“We going to see a blues and jazz festival down there, and after that I’ll figure out what’s next,” Kreger said.
But the legacy of the store will live on, in the memories of countless Naperville residents and in the Kreger family itself.
“Tonight, there’s going to be champagne to toast the generations,” he said.