For a generation, much of the food consumed in the Washington area passed through Union Terminal Market. A bustling mix of wholesalers, restaurants and hucksters (small vendors), the market extended three blocks north from Florida Avenue between 4th and 6th Streets, NE.
Union Terminal Market opened in 1931 as the successor to the Center Market (located at the site of the National Archives). It was built on a field that had been used variously as a military camp during the Civil War and World War I, a lumberyard and a spot for circuses and fairs. The new market was a harbinger of the population growth and economic development Washington would enjoy over subsequent decades. It brought new business life to a heretofore-sleepy part of Northeast DC.
With a largely Jewish, Italian and Greek vendor population, the market was a microcosm of the city in its ethnic makeup. Most were immigrants, and some stores specialized in “ethnic” food, like Italian wine or kosher meat. Jack Dekelbaum, whose father founded a meat company, recalled a Jewish butcher known as the “shicker” (Yiddish for drunkard), who snuck sips of whiskey between work at the butcher block. Union Terminal Market also boasted a farmers market, an area for hucksters and restaurants, including Canon’s Steak House, as well as Hendrix’s and the Market Deli, both of which offered Jewish fare such as bagels and kosher hot dogs.
Some families opened several businesses in the market. The Kolker family maintained two from the market’s beginning. In 1931, Samuel Kolker and his son Sidney established Washington Beef to supply hotels and restaurants. That same year, Sidney’s brother Fred established Kolker Poultry, an egg and poultry supply business. Fred’s son Jeff went on to run Washington Beef.
Fred Kolker’s business became one of the largest wholesale poultry distributors in the region. During World War II, Kolker sold his poultry to the US Army, later recalling, “My chicken went to our soldiers who were located all over the world…My name, Kolker Poultry Co., was stenciled on each box, and the boys from Washington, DC, wrote me letters, thanking me for the good poultry they received.” Later, Kolker Poultry supplied the city’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. By the mid-1980s, Kolker Poultry was the oldest poultry wholesaler in the US. The Washington Post called Kolker “the self-styled dean of the market.” He retired in 1988, but remained chairman and president of the company.
By the time Kolker retired, Union Terminal Market had changed. As wholesale food distribution centers moved to the suburbs, and supermarket chains displaced small grocers, the market fell into disrepair. Investment in the 1980s, and a new name—Capital City Market—did little to help the market’s deteriorating infrastructure. Additionally, few of the children and grandchildren of the original proprietors went to work in the market. Most, instead, went into other, better-paying professions.
Yet new businesses established by Asian and Latin American immigrants over the past three decades brought new life to the market. In a 1983 interview, Kolker observed, “These people are like the older generation of Jewish storekeepers. Some live above their stores and use their own family members to make it pay. They’ve brought that kind of business back.”
Today, like much of Northeast DC, the market is undergoing a major transformation. Alongside the wholesalers, a building called Union Market has sprung up. Home to artisan food businesses catering to the area’s curious epicureans, Union Market is the epicenter of a redevelopment plan that will replace many of the existing wholesale areas with retail shops, restaurants, a hotel, art and startup and event spaces.
Connecting this new venture with the past, Union Market’s website features a video interview with Brenda and Paul Pascal on the market and Kolker Poultry. Brenda is the daughter of Fred Kolker, and Paul served as general counsel for an association of the market’s businesspeople as well as the Greater Washington Wholesalers Association.
On September 21, 2014, join market insider Paul Pascal for an exclusive walking tour from 1 to 2:30 pm. Along with decades of the market’s history, Paul will highlight former sites of Jewish-owned businesses and give a taste of how the market has evolved. This tour is sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington in partnership with the Jewish Food Experience. The tour starts at the corner of 4th and Morse Streets, NE. Tickets cost $15 for JHSGW members and $20 for nonmembers, and advance registration is required: online or by phone, 202-789-0900.
Top photo: Kolker Poultry at Union Terminal Market with its delivery trucks, ca. 1940s. Courtesy of Brenda and Paul Pascal.