Longtime Essex Street Market Butcher Jeffrey Ruhalter Dies at 60

Jeffrey Ruhalter. February 26, 2011 at the Essex Street Market.

Jeffrey Ruhalter. February 26, 2011 at the Essex Street Market.

We received some sad news in the last day regarding former Essex Street Market butcher Jeffrey Ruhalter. Here’s a statement from his family:

Sylvia and Allen Ruhalter, their daughter Francine Levine, cousins, nieces, and nephews and friends mourn the loss of our beloved Jeffrey Richard Ruhalter on August 17, 2016. Jeffrey had the most generous and giving heart. He was the creative innovator of Jeffrey’s Meats, a unique store which brought food and art together. Jeffrey was not only an expert butcher and chef but a true friend to his customers. He fed anyone that needed help. He taught classes on butchery and cooking that inspired people and brought them joy. During the recession that began in 2008, he even fed steak dinners to over 200 people who were laid off from their jobs. Jeffrey was recently diagnosed with cancer, but he kept all of his pain to himself. Despite being ill, he worked until a few weeks ago and continued to be a legendary friend to so many. We will never forget you, Jeffrey. Lovingly, your family and friends.

Facing increased rent and other financial hardships, Ruhalter made a decision to close his Essex Street Market stall in 2011. He was the last original tenant in the market (Ruhalter’s grandfather established a shop there in 1940; his dad ran the business until the year 2000).

Over the years, he tried to cope with a changing neighborhood, walking a fine line between serving longtime customers and new people who just arrived in the community. During the tumultuous events leading up to the closure of his shop, Ruhalter wrote:

This is my world; a week ago a lady came to my shop, drunk, and I knew that she needed food.  I went to the Pain D’Avignon bread store in the market and wanted to buy bread for her, in which the bread company gave me some bread for free to help my cause. I came back and made her a sandwich to fill her belly.  Moments later the next customer spent 45 dollars on some of my prime dry aged steaks to feed her family for dinner.  I don’t decide who gets what. I respond to the community’s needs as they arise because, if it were not for the community, I wouldn’t be here.  I can say that the community feeds my soul as their butcher but in addition, is that the community fuels my existence.  What I know to be true is that we belong to each other and without the community, you, I don’t exist. Thank you for giving my family our life blood.

In 2010, the New York Times profiled Ruhalter in a story titled, “An Endangered Butcher Gets His Groove Back.”  The article documented his struggles running a small business during a brutal recession, but also captured Ruhalter’s quirky spirit:

He was so depressed, psychologically and fiscally, that he discontinued Day of the Rose, a random holiday when he handed out 20 dozen roses to women at the market. “All you had to do was breathe if you were a woman; 2 years old or 82 years old, you got a rose,” he said. “I couldn’t afford it anymore.”… Though Day of the Rose remains on hiatus, female customers still get special attention from Mr. Ruhalter, who wears his long brown hair in a ponytail and has two hoop earrings on his left ear. “Swashbuckling,” is how he describes his look. A longtime practice he has maintained, despite everything, is paper-wrapping a handful of thick-cut bacon for each new customer. If he knows it is your birthday, it might be a free steak. Last week, a young blonde stepped up to the counter and seems uncertain about buying a goose, saying she would check back. “Dear lady, when you make up your mind, call me; and if my wife answers (Ruhalter was not married), hang up right away and call back five minutes later,” he told her.

Ruhalter’s funeral was held today in New Jersey. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Tenement Museum in Jeffrey Ruhalter’s memory.

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Ruhalter grilling lamb at an outdoor festival on Stanton Street.

Ruhalter grilling lamb at an outdoor festival on Stanton Street.

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