The Broadway Market was jam-packed last weekend.
That Saturday, shoppers at Mazurek Bakery lined the 15 feet of display cases trying to catch employees’ attention.
The 23 stools around the Potts Deli lunch counter were continuously filled. Chocolate eggs at Strawberry Island practically hopped off the shelves.
“You couldn’t even see in front of you,” employee Stephanie Davis said.
One week later at the market told a very different story. Davis looked in vain for customers. Anyone.
“It’s kind of how it is, sadly,” she said.
Despite talk for years of reactivating the East Side site, the taxpayer-supported Broadway Market appears largely on life support. The open market remains the tale of two time periods – the few weeks of boffo business at Easter time, and the rest of the year.
The predominantly African-American neighborhood is poor, with 54 percent living below the poverty level in 2014, according to Community Survey estimates. It’s also a declining population, with about a 20 percent drop in residents recorded between 2009 and 2014. Only 7 percent of the households were families with married couples. Fifty-six percent live alone. And many of the onetime white shoppers long ago moved to the suburbs, making their lone trip back to the market only at Easter time.
On Saturday, the lack of customers and curtain-draped stands that usually sell low-priced tchotchkes or food items made the market’s plentiful unused spaces even more noticeable. A commercial kitchen is supposed to open later in the year in one of the areas, a rare ray of hope for the site.
Some vendors at the southern end of the market – particularly the butchers and fish sellers – are successful year-round.
That’s true even though most of their business comes in the first two weeks of the month, when many customers receive food stamps and other government assistance.
Early Saturday afternoon, seventeen people were seen standing outside Camellia’s, in front of display cases with smoked pig tails, cut wings, hardwood smoked beef sausage and other meats.
“There are some vendors who really rely on Easter as their major week, but we look at Easter as something that is really nice to have and look forward to, but we don’t pack up and leave when it’s over,” said Adam Cichocki, the owner’s son. “We’re busy throughout the year.”
Lupus Meats also had a crowd of customers, choosing from the likes of Wardynski’s sausage, chuck roast and porterhouse steaks.
“We are busy all the time, though we slow down toward the end of the month,” Michelle Lupus said. The specials, she said, were a big draw.
Lupus Meats employed 30 people the day before Easter. On Saturday, there were still 10.
That contrasted with the lone employee behind the counter at White Eagle Bakery, in the middle of Broadway Market.
Rita Milligan remembered when three people would work Saturdays. But that was a long time ago; she’s worked alone on Saturdays for the past 10 years.
“You see it,” Milligan said when asked how busy she was. “There’s nobody. You have an astronomical Easter, and if you could have a half a percent of those people back on a normal basis we would be steadily busy. It would be nice to just get some of those people back on a regular basis.
“Without Easter, my boss would close,” Milligan added. “Thursday I had $52 all day. That’s a little worse than usual, but it’s not out of the ordinary.”
At E.M. Chrusciki, the eclairs, brownies and cream puffs sat in neat, undisturbed rows. The plastic cases of chrusciki also appeared untouched.
It was quite a different story the week before.
“It was wall-to-wall people,” said Jennifer LaBelle from behind the counter. Three stands were open then, employing over 20 people.
On Saturday, there was just the one stand and her.
The untouched pastries had company at a nearby fruit and vegetable stand, where there was hardly anyone to notice the colorful grapefruits, apples, watermelons and other neatly displayed produce.
That may be why employees seemed happy to recall how busy they had been a week earlier.
“It was insane,” said Sam Brooker of the family-owned Mazurek Bakery. “It was person after person, and no breaks.”
“It was absolute crazy, almost unmanageably crazy,” Khris Klaich said.
His Krown King stand sold hundreds of Polish Princess crowns for $2 and $5.
One week later, Klaich was shutting down at 2 p.m.
The feast-or-famine model at Broadway Market isn’t sustainable, he said, and needs to change.
“Everyone thinks we’re going to get back to that,” Klaich said, pointing to decades-old photos on a wall, when the market was a bustling place year-round.
“They need fresh, new ideas to keep the market alive.”