Gourmands lose a link with the past Polock Johnny's files for bankruptcy

March 19, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

Polock Johnny's, the Polish sausage chain that taught Baltimore to love heartburn, has apparently sold its last "un-Burger."

Politically incorrect to the last, the restaurant chain and sausage-making operation named for John C. "Polock Johnny" Kafka filed for Chapter 7 liquidation in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Baltimore last Friday.

The filing brings to an end a colorful 49-year history that began in 1944 when the original "Polock Johnny," now retired and in his 90s, set up a hot dog stand in an arcade on The Block.

Over the decades, Polock Johnny's sausages became one of Baltimore's culinary icons -- a place where brave diners would devour their plump, garlicky sausages with "The Works," a gut-wrenching blend of onions, ketchup, relish, celery, green peppers and crushed red peppers.

For many years, Polock Johnny's sausage-eating contest was an annual spectacle of civic gluttony. The savage rite was immortalized in National Geographic.

In spite of the business' name, the Kafka family is not Polish but Bohemian. Al Wisniewski, chairman of the Katyn Memorial Committee and a member of the Polish National Alliance, recalled that when the elder Mr. Kafka first started doing business under the name Polock Johnny's, some members of the Polish community were offended at his use of a derogatory term for Poles.

"But then they just passed it off," said Mr. Wisniewski. The feeling, he said, was that "if someone wants to call himself a Polock, then he has a right to."

During the 1970s, under the leadership of the second "Polock Johnny," Mr. Kafka's son, John F. Kafka, the company expanded through franchising into a chain of about two dozen hot dog stands serving a region from Virginia to Pennsylvania.

The company also operated a glass-enclosed sausage-making facility in Lexington Market where visitors could watch sausage being made. Art Tivenoir, who worked for the Kafkas for more than two decades and later owned Polock Johnny's franchises, said that operation was spun off as a separate company, PJ's Inc., which apparently will continue to supply Crazy John's and other customers with the same sausages that made Polock Johnny's a local legend.

After Mr. Kafka died of a heart attack at 58 in November 1986, the company fell upon hard times.

Neither Margaret A. Kafka, Mr. Kafka's widow and the company's sole stockholder, nor the company's bankruptcy +V lawyers could be reached for comment. The chain's flagship store on The Block closed in 1986 after the city bought the building that housed it, said Mr. Tivenoir, who said he acquired that franchise when Mr. Kafka "got religion."

Recently the chain has dwindled. Longtime supplier Sheldon Garfield said it was down to two restaurants at the time of its filing -- one on Washington Boulevard and one in Lexington Market. The bankruptcy filing gave no specific number for assets and liabilities.

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