Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jack Richlen, Retired Businessman

Jack is now perhaps most fondly remembered for Richlen's Kickin' Chicken but 
his day he owned and ran a number of Central District businesses, including 
a Meat Store, a Tavern, a gas station as well as other properties. Today, 94 years old, Jack still enjoys dancing twice a week and is devoted to his family as they are to him. 
Jack Richlen.  Photo: Madeline Crowley

When did your family start living in the Central Area?

I can only start with my mother and my father coming to this country in 1920, through the Immigration Office. They couldn’t read or write, but the first thing they did was to become American citizens. They went to school to learn whatever the process was at that time was to become citizens. First thing they did was to go to school.

What country did your parents emigrate from?

My parents came from a village, a shtetl, in what is now Romania and was (then) Russia; my brother Dave was born in that village. My dad had a business in this shtetl. The Russian government wanted him because my dad knew how to dye material.  My dad wouldn’t do it, not for the Russian government; he wouldn’t do anything. So he was put in jail, then they took him out of jail, gave him a gun, a uniform and no boots. Put him into their army but he escaped. He didn’t have no shoes so his feet was tied in rags. That was all he had but he escaped, from that he got very bad feet. He could hardly stand or walk. He walked very funny, going down the street.

Jack's father. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen

My dad and mother remember the Cossacks coming through the village waving their swords and killing people. That’s all they did was kill people. They left a bloody mess. My parents always remembered that.

So, they fled and somehow got on a ship to the Americas.

They were in there were in the bottom of the ship in steerage. My mother says she rode the propeller the whole way over. She remembers that trip. Oh, it was just horrible and she was pregnant.

No bathrooms, no nothing. In that time, you had to be brave and strong. My mother was very brave and very strong. My dad brought everything they owned when they fled, in the olden days they brought everything.

They saved the feathers from the chickens, and they made (mattress) fillings from the feathers. I can remember sleeping in that (feather bed). I remember when my dad bought his first house. When it was cold at night, they only had wood to feed the furnaces. So, it was colder than all hell. I’d just jump in that bed and (laughs) cover myself up in that blanket and wiggle down into the feather mattress. And it was so, oh, was it good!

Anyway, (when they arrived in Canada) they went to the hospital and I was born in Montreal. My Dad paid the cabby the money for the fare. And the cabby took off with all their furnishings. He took everything they had, and they were left (virtually) naked. My mother was in the hospital, but my dad and brother didn’t have a place to sleep, so they slept in whatever little they had in the hospital. They didn’t have no money to go to a hotel or motel. They lost everything they owned.

That’s how it all got started. They went from Montreal to Vancouver, arriving at the immigration office in Seattle on 4th & Dearborn. At that point, my parents didn’t have any money left. So my mother hid me and didn’t note me (on the form for) the immigration office because there was no money. So, I was on that sheet paper as an object instead.

Much later, when I was married I had problems because of that. We went up to Whistler to ski, I didn’t have a problem coming into Canada, but coming out of Canada I did. They kept me there for about 4 hours (because on the immigration form, I was only a dot, some kind of a mark (on the paperwork). When they came through immigration it only cost five dollars more to list me, but my parents didn’t have five dollars. 

Jack's mother. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen
I had to go through a whole history to get that settled -- I am an American citizen now. I went through the whole process to become an American citizen. I have my own papers.

My mother went back to the hospital in Montreal to help with this when I was going through the process of becoming an American citizen. She found the doctor at the hospital who had taken care of her. Years later, he was still there, and we were able to get all the necessary information. He remembered my mother. He had history with my mother there. There was enough paperwork from the hospital that I was able to become a citizen.

Moving to Seattle
When we moved to Seattle I remember loading dump trucks with my mother’s furniture. We moved to Seattle with two trucks. One belonged to somebody who wouldn’t drive the truck after it was all loaded. So I drove my uncle’s great big dump truck up the freeway from Tacoma with my grandma and the cat. I remember (laughs) the cat went crazy.

We moved on a Monday morning. We moved real early because the trucks were loaded and ready to go.  My dad kept two cars from his business. One was a 1937 Hudson, which at that time was a real fancy car, and a Chevrolet Coupe. My mother and my brother drove up in the Hudson and my Dad drove the Chevrolet.

We came not knowing where we’re going to live. So we went to Jackson to 23rd Ave., where the Jewish Community lived at that time. My mother went to a real estate office to find a place to stay. At that time houses were leasing for $25 a month. The guy wanted $5 bucks more than she wanted to pay, $30 a month, but she paid it because it was nice and clean. My mother was a very upscale woman in her time. The house was freshly painted, we didn’t have to go in there and clean someone else’s dirt before we moved in. My Mom was a very clean person. She taught my brother and I how to keep a house clean. 

Jack and a brother. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen

She found a nice place to stay off Union Street, on 29th and down Spring Street. I can tell you which house it is; it’s on 29th and spring, going north. My parents’ house is the 3rd house.

It’s where 29th dead-ends at Union Street. They excavated that land and filled it in so they wouldn’t have to build a bridge. That’s why it’s like it is now. I wasn’t there when it was done, but that’s the reason that was done. My parents lived in that house for a good many years.

That house is still there.

It was a beautiful house. It was nice and clean.

The day we moved in, by around 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon we moved the trucks in. Then we laid the carpets down and put the furniture in. When it was about 6 o’clock in the evening the house was just about set up. The beds were made, friends from the old country came over. They came with food and the wine, and had a party.

That was the normal thing when somebody from out of town moved in. Friends would come first to have a party, to open up a bottle of wine and they would say a welcome. I don’t remember the details, but before they ate they always had a, “L’Chaim,” they’d light the candles and so forth. That’s how we got started in Seattle.

We were the only Jewish couple on that part of the street. On 28th (Ave.) there was a Jewish man, his name was Shapiro. They lived in a house there, and on that street there were a couple of other Jewish people. On Cherry Street there were businesses either owned or rented by Jewish people: a Drug Store, a filling station and a couple of grocery stores, that’s all that what was there at that time.

House on 29th. Photo: Madeline Crowley

Do you remember what nationalities/ethnicities the neighbors were at that point?

Oh, I don’t remember. I assume they were Christians.

Everyone was Caucasian?

Oh, yes. All white. At that time no blacks lived there.  The Italians were farther south of Jackson Street.

Were there were many Norwegians or Danes?

I would have to say just that they were Christians.

Did you speak to the neighbors?

Yes, we talked to the neighbors. My brother and I went and introduced ourselves. My parents did too.

Another Jewish couple was up between 29th and 30th on the north side. I don’t remember the name. My Mother had a lot of company, because they were a lot of people from the old country, they all seemed to come (to the area) about that same time.

Your social circle was primarily Jewish people?


Was that generally true at that time? Christians spent time with Christians? Jewish people spent time with Jewish people?


Did your family feel welcomed?

Well, my brother and I felt strange because we were just 14 or 15 years old. We were very sensitive to the neighbors. The man on the north side of our house, he was retired and he worked for Wonder Bakery Company. He fussed a lot about his yard and so forth. My brother and I tried to keep the yard cut. We had a lawn mower and shovels we brought from our house Tacoma.

They were friendly. My dad kept the truck close to our house and didn’t infringe on the other people’s street space.

Did you feel the area was friendly?

I think my parents felt that way, yes. My mother was a very outgoing person.

It was a learning process. We went to school and met a lot of Jewish people. During the holidays, Passover and Yom Kippur we had candles and about 12 o’clock on Friday. By then my mother made sure that everything was clean. I remember she went to have her hair fixed and washed for 50 cents and then she went and took a shower. Also, my grandmother lived with us. She was my father’s mother. My uncle brought her to the US and then to Seattle. He had all the papers filled out and paid her way.

Was your family very religious?

I would say to a certain extent, they were. It was a matter of time and the way of life that changed their way of living. On holidays and on Friday nights, those times were special - they lit the candles at the table, they said the prayers and so forth before they ate. We didn’t do a lot of that but when my grandmother was alive we did, see? Then she went to the Kline-Galland Home. 

Jack with both brothers. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen

It was an old wooden building, I can still remember it. My Dad used to go visit her on Sunday. I think my Uncle who brought her over (to this country); he used to come too.  My Dad used to give some money to support her and my Uncle would pay the rest. I don’t know all the financials but I know my Dad used to take out his old pocketbook, unwrap it and put his hand in. He knew how much money he had in there. That was the old way of doing things; that’s all.

When my dad very first moved here, he still owed the butcher and a grocery store down in Tacoma. Before we moved, he told them he was going to move. But he drove back with money until he paid everybody off, everyone in the market that he owed money to. I remember a lot of times I went with him that summertime and the last stop we made was the market. He’d either paid the guy a dollar or whatever amount of money he had then, but he paid ‘em all off.

What kind of business did he get into in Seattle?

He was like a junk man, but what he specialized in at that time was tires. He used to recap tires and rebuild batteries. He’d go the gas stations and bring them fresh batteries. They exchanged them for money, one kind of battery for another one.

My Dad didn’t have a big truck. He took this Chevrolet Coupe and cut the back end off so he could haul things. He had a 1927 Chevrolet truck and he used it for years until he had enough money to buy another truck, from an Italian bakery. There were several bakeries around 14th and Yesler and 14th and Jackson. Jackson Street had the Wonder Bread, then there was an Italian bakery, and they gave my Dad a deal. That’s how he went from this little old truck that never quit on him to a bigger truck. 

Chevy Couple. Photo: Rights Reserved.

He cried when he had to give it up. (laughs). That first truck never quit on him. Never had a problem. It never failed him in all those years. On weekends, I used to go and clean it up, clean the spark plugs to keep the car, in my way of thinking, keeping it going. Keeping it ready to go.
Coupe into truck. Photo: Rights Reserved.

What about your mother?

The determination, through, was my mother. She was the dynamo. Well, that’s part of the old country. It’s part of the old country’s style. My mother’s parents were tailors in the old country. My mother learned the tailoring business through her dad, he taught her. She went downtown to work in the tailor shop for 25 cents an hour. She was fast and quick. This fella who owned the tailor shop, it was in a clothing store on 3rd and University, (that’s where I bought my suits). The feller who owned it was Charlie Shapiro. My mother went to him after a while and told him she quit unless he gives her 35 cents an hour because she could outdo ‘em all: sewing buttonholes, handmade sewing. At that time, I was working downtown I was getting $9 a week. But, I bought her dollar suits. Shapiro let me charge them. That’s where my mother went to work. And he did give her 35 cents an hour, because she could outwork everyone, all of ‘em.

She worked for those two or three years. She had a nice way of saving money, and knowing how to, uh, manipulate (laughs).

They briefly had a Pawn Shop off 1st Avenue?

Not for too long, because my dad couldn’t handle guns. The sight of a gun made him sick. He’d had the experience back in the old country, seeing shootings and killings. He wasn’t equipped to have that kind of a business.

During the war (WWII), my mother had a tailor shop for the navy only. When the new recruits came in they gave them the regulation uniforms, and they fit them (to the man). They didn't fit them randomly. My mother would make them a tailor made dress suit. She measured them and had the material, and then she knew how to cut the suit, cut the material and put it all together. I don’t know what they sold for. When the suits were all made and put together then my dad would press them out. My dad did the pressing.

When the sailors came in and tried their uniforms on, if they fit, it was just a perfect fit. A couple of times she missed, but she knew how to take it apart and fix it. So, they were in the tailor business for maybe two or three years.

Then, as time went on they bought a house on 36th and Marion, and that was their real home. That was what my mother wanted. That’s when she quit working. When she bought that house she quit working. 

House on 36th. Photo: Madeline Crowley
How did you feel at school, how was your school experience?

It was strange. It wasn’t comfortable.


I didn’t know too many people. During lunch hour I would walk the two blocks home.

So initially you were at Madrona School?

Yeah. Just for half a semester. Then, I went to Garfield (High). I graduated Garfield
in 1939.

Did you feel more comfortable at Garfield?

(Sighs) Well, when my brother and I were at Garfield we got paper routes.

So, you were working.

We were. My route was in Garlic Gulch.  From Jackson to 28th through to the little Italians stores that were there, the grocery stores…

Were there small farms there at that point?

There were small family farms. Two blocks south of Jackson Street they had little farms to grow just enough for themselves. I remember they brought the grapes to make the wine.  They went down in their basements in the big tubs jumping around with their feet. We watched that.

The kids would have spoken English but their parents would have spoken Italian?

Yes, Italian. Yeah, I’ll tell you. We heard the word ‘Jew’ all the time. They knew I was a Jew, Jewish. They always, well, it wasn’t easy to get them to give up the dollar and a quarter.  They wanted favors and the maximum time to pay their bill.

So, in trying to collect what people owed sometimes you were called, “A Jew?”

Yeah, they would say, “The Jew is here.”

Did that hurt your feelings?

Well. (pauses) Yes, it did. It was embarrassing.

At that time, I only had that one pair of pants and one pair of shoes. The one who kept me in (those) shoes was the Italian fella’, the shoemaker on 29th & Cherry. There was a theatre there; I think it was called the Madrona Theater. For 10 cents you got to see a show. Next to that was the Barber Shop and the Italian cobbler. I got acquainted with him and he used to put soles on my shoes. That was the only pair of shoes I had in the world.  I also had one sweater I wore to school. When it wore out, the material came apart, at school I would carry a book over it to hide it. 

Jack when young. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen

I was ashamed to ask my parents for money. My brother and I, my older brother, who’s no longer with me now, we made our own money, nickels and dimes, and paid for some of our own clothing. I was ashamed even to ask for a nickel for a pint of milk at that time.

That was in the middle of the 1930’s.

During the Great Depression?

Oh, yes.

Did your mother make your underwear out of flour sacks?

Well, I don’t know what it was but we were never short of underclothes. We had the old washing machine. We used to wash our own sheets by hand with a hand-crank and the old tub.

We had a big yard; it was kind of secluded back there.

Now, when you were in high school did you have many friends?

No, I didn’t have too many friends until I started going out to dance.

On Old Highway 99 halfway between Seattle and Tacoma there was a dancehall. It was a big dancehall, and I danced in that hall with my brother on Saturday nights.

Did you go dancing when you were in high school?

No. A cousin from Tacoma used to come over and we used to dance together in the kitchen to the radio.

What kind of radio?

It wasn’t a big one. It was in the kitchen because that’s where the outlet was.

Later, we moved to 27th and Jefferson and I met Ray Waldron. This was Ray, my friend. (shows photo) Ray, my friend Ray, he was like a brother to me, we were very close.

I was out of school by then. One night Pop wanted to go someplace. I let him use my car; I didn’t want him to take his big old truck to go out. I took a streetcar downtown to the Trianon Ballroom (History of...). 

(Great photos of the Trianon)

That was when I met Ray. I didn’t have a way to get home except for the streetcar.  Since I had seen him there several times, I asked him where he lived. He lived four blocks from our house. We became blood brother friends after that. He was a Swede, a nice man. He played the accordion. Every Saturday or Sunday afternoon, on 14th & Yesler on the 3rd floor – there was a ballroom. All the Finns would come and dance. That’s where I learned, from Ray, all the Scandinavian dances. 

The Washington Hall?

That building is still there. On the 3rd floor is a dance hall. Is it still there?

Yes. They’re doing a renovation of it now. They have the white shell and the lights back up.

The band used to play on that little stage. That was where Ray played with his band. He had an accordion. I used to love to dance there to an accordion; because I liked the rhythm, I could feel the rhythm. 

Washington Hall Stage. Photo: Courtesy of Laurie Clark

I used to go there with him on Sunday, and these older folks. They got me to going and taught me these Scandinavian dances. That’s where I learned ‘em all. Whenever Ray played in any particular organization or went dancing, I went with Ray.

Once I toured the country with him, right after the war. We started here in Seattle and went all around the United States, all the way to New York, and on the way back home, I met my Pearl (his wife). And I brought her home with me. 

Pearl Richlen. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen

He had a band, was the lead accordionist and they played all the old schottische and the polka. (sings) dah-da-dah…  I still remember the rhythm; they had good rhythm. Then, we started going to other dances. In Ballard, they had the old Norwegian dancehall that played the Norwegian dances. It was right on the edge of city, then. One step further and you were out in the country. I used to go there, sit and have a bottle of beer.

Ray picked me up all the time so I’d pay his way into the dance, it used to be 90 cents or a dollar. There were a lot of Scandinavian clubs out there with all the Swedes and Norwegians. Of course, they were used to that music, and it was good music.

Ray worked out at Boeing at that time. He knew how to figure without a calculator, in his head. You ask him to figure any set of numbers and he could do it. He had a 1939 Buick, that was his first car. 

Jack's cross-country car. Photo: Rights Reserved.

Is it your impression that the Scandinavians and the Finns were more open than were the Italians?

I would say so, yes. There was this club I belonged to, a Scandinavian club in Ballard. All the Jewish fellows used to go on Thursday or Friday nights; they went there in Ballard to go dancing.

So the Jewish Community spent time with the Scandinavian community?

Oh, yes. Oh, yes! In fact, there’s a fellow here now (living in his building) who was a Sephardic. We all went to the big dances. The Sephardic’s always had their little corner and they made a lot of noise. And they danced.

Then, Thursdays was the Trianon Ballroom night, they had a dance hall. I love to dance; I still go dancing.

I’m what they call a ballroom dancer. I used to do all the Scandinavian dances, but recently, I had an occasion where I had turned and circled, but almost fainted so I don’t do that anymore.

So I just stick to fox trots and waltzes. My Pearl and I loved to waltz. (laughs). We belonged to the Scandinavian Club for years. Pearl was asked to be the President of the Club, and then when the year was up and she wanted to quit, they wouldn’t let her quit. She ended up being President for five years in a row of this Goodtime Dance Club. They used to like to come to our house and my mother would cook chicken soup for them. They liked chicken soup, so my mother made chicken soup. She’d fill ‘em up with chicken soup. That club is still going.

It is a good time dance club. All the way back in the 1930s there were all these little clubs that held 20-30 people in Ballard. We used to go to Ballard on Thursday nights, go dancing. Friday night was kind of a Sabbath, when you would start the Sabbath holiday. So we went dancing Saturday and we always went dancing on Sunday up to a place in Everett. 

Jack and Pearl on their porch. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen
It sounds like the Scandinavian community was very welcoming. You could just join the club. It wasn’t like many cities which were more stratified at that time.

Once the music started they all, they all did dance. We would even drive out as far as up to Mt. Vernon to dance, to listen to Harry Limbick, who I loved and knew for years. Harry, he had rhythm in his accordion. I don’t care how tired you were, once you went into the dance hall and you heard him play his accordion, it was dancing till 2 o’clock in the morning. Yeah, that was it!

Was that polkas?

Oh, oh, at the Scandinavian?


Oh, they had the foxtrots and waltzes. Oh, yeah! Swedish waltz and Valsu Waltz, (sings, Da-Dah-Da Boom!) you kicked your foot like this (kicks slightly). You’d dance one, two three, and then on the fourth beat, you stopped and you kicked your foot and then you danced on.

That must have been really fun.

Oh yeah, I loved that. There was one fella, when I did the polka with Pearl, he would dance to the polka, and then he’d lift her up and bring her around, set her down (laughs). That was his dancing with the polka. Anyway, the music gets to me. Even today, I have a dancing partner. I try to do some of the dances that are easy where I don’t have to spin. I’m afraid because I lose my sense of balance, and I don’t want that. You could do a two-step to it but that isn’t the way it’s done.

When you get out of high school what did you do?

I delivered papers with my brother in Madison Park, over 200 papers. On Sunday we’d start at 36th and Madison. My Dad would give us the truck (laughs) and we’d put it in low gear and we’d just let it go while we’d run and deliver the papers. We never got (caught), the streets are pretty well clear at that time (of the morning) there weren’t a lot cars. That’s how we’d get it done. On Sundays at that time the papers were very thick, really heavy. I delivered there to a house that I later bought right on 36th and McGilvra Blvd and Madison, right off of Madison in Madison Park.

When I bought the house my brother and I were still delivering papers in Madison Park, this was in 1936 and ‘37. One of my customers was John W. Nordstrom. I bought some shoes from Nordstrom’s and even today, I dance in a pair of shoes that John sold me way back in the late 1930s, ‘39 or ‘40. In the closet I have that pair of dancing shoes and a bag that I carry them in. I dance in his shoes. John was a real nice guy. 

Jack and his brothers. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen

I barely was able to buy that house in Madison Park. I don’t think they wanted to give me the mortgage on it because I was just delivering papers.

Now, I’ve gotten ahead of myself. When I did buy that house I was working downtown at a meat market and getting $9 a week. I got married in March and bought the house in July. At that time they had 90 days to clear the papers (mortgage). After that they would throw the papers away. If you didn’t do everything you had to do within those 90 days, they could throw the deal away.

I remember I got my Dad and told him the time was up so we better go downtown to learn what the scoop was. Once guy said he remembered the deal but he didn’t know where the papers were. Everybody had a stack of papers and no one could find it. Then finally they found the papers and we signed them and we moved in right away.

How did you get from the paper route to working downtown?

We quit delivering papers. A friend of my Dads’ knew this chicken dealer who knew a butcher shop that needed a cleanup kid. Since I didn’t have a paper route anymore so I took it. In 1937, I went downtown to work in the meat market for $9 a week after school. And I worked. And I learned. It was on 3rd Ave. That’s all gone, now.

I used to have to wait until the butchers quit, and then clean up the store. Scrape the blocks, clean the meat cases, clean everything. I don’t know how many times he fired me. He fired me maybe three times; the next time I quit.

He sounds like he was a tough guy.

No, he’d get mad at the butchers, but he couldn't fire the butchers because they were union. So, after he’d fire me I’d take my old car and go to Portland and Seaside, Oregon and take a couple weeks off. When I’d come back my mother would tell me Mac had called and wanted me back at work. That was because I’d learned how to pickle meats. I learned how to make bacon, how to cure it. I eventually learned to make my own hams, Jack’s kosher hams. (laughs)

Did you have to handle pork?

Oh, yes. I made bacon. I cured it. I learned the formula for how to cure it. I used to lay the slabs like this (gestures with his hands) cure them in brine and leave it for 14 days. I did the same with ham. The difference with the whole ham is there is vein on the top of it that goes through the whole ham. That was the way I was curing ham then I’d take it down to the smokehouse.

They said I had the best kosher ham there was. (laughs) Next, I froze it. I learned how to use the slicer and as the wheel went down I would go ‘boom, boom, boom’ (indicating slices coming off). There were certain parts of ham or bacon was real lean, that was one price then there were second price and third price cuts.

I learned how to cut meat; the butchers taught me that. You know they’d say, “Here Jack, this is the way do a cut. Here, try it again!” They showed me how to take the bones out, and soon I learned how to pickle all that meat. I’m the one who started in Seattle kosher style corned beef in a public market. 

Photo: Pickled Corned Beef.
I had my own barrel, the only thing it had to say ‘kosher style,’ I couldn’t say (it was) Kosher. I had to say kosher style. My boss Mac went in with me on the deal. That’s how I got started in curing the meats, curing the corn beef. Part of my job was to make sure I had enough brine at the beginning of the week so that by Saturday we could have the meat cured, and then make the regular corn beef. I don’t know what year it was when I started that kosher style corn beef.

I had my picture in the Seattle Times.  I don’t know where that picture is now, but I was up there with my curly hair -- at that time I had curly hair. I never used to use a comb, I just used to go like this (rubs his hair).

A young Jack Richlen. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen

The owner, Mac, trusted my judgment about the pricing. He never kicked about it. That was my job. It was curing. I used to go down to the big cooler. The inspectors didn’t know what I was doing down there. They didn’t have any say. I’d say when it was time to buy more hams and pork and he just trusted me.

Well, my boss fired me three times. He didn’t fire me because of anything I did. He fired me because the butchers there had a very strong union. He always hired me back. Later on in life, I found out I was the best employee he ever had because I didn’t have to be told what to do. I knew what to do. I got along well with him and soon enough I got $21.50 a week.

When I graduated high school I went and joined the union. I told the boss, he wasn’t happy because he’d have to pay me more money. The reason he paid me more was because of the hams - curing them, smoking up, cutting them up and putting them in the displays in the meat department. I made it out of briskets. I knew how to cut the brisket out the big carcass. The butchers’ taught me how to do that. I’d take out what I needed for the corned beef. I had regular corned beef there too. I did a pretty good job. I advertised it

I worked there until the war, then I quit the meat market. After that is when Ray, my friend Herman and I took a road trip across the country. I loaded my car up, it was a brand-new Plymouth, practically brand-new with our clothes and took off, on a tour of the United States. That’s when I met Pearl. Yes. I brought her to Seattle.

Pearl in her swimming costume. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen

That’s when you met your wife, Pearl?

I met her at Scott Field IL. (Link to images/history of Scott Field)

Her position at Scott Field was Head Code instructor for the big dude pilots who’d use come with the big B-29s, the air-to-ground communication.  She taught the pilots and when the pilots left Scott, they went over seas. She had around 8 or 10 teachers under her, and taught them Morse Code.

I was on the trip with Ray and Herman, and we got tired driving after leaving New York. When we passed by Scott Field there was a nice motel, so we stopped there overnight. Then the owner told us there was going to be a big band, music and a dance that night. He also told us there would be a lot of girls over there, women who worked for a government project (in Morse Code).

See, how I met her was we went to the dance and everyone was dancing except this little gal sitting all by herself. I asked her to dance. We danced several times at the Scott Field and we got acquainted.

After the dance we sat and we talked. And I said I’d stay another day so could get together after her job in the evening and we did. We went out and went to a cocktail lounge. I told her I was headed for Chicago.

I liked her. I wasn’t interested in getting married or anything like that. It was about a week before Thanksgiving. We had planned to head to Chicago. So we stayed in Chicago for about three or four days. We went down where all the gangsters lived and all, and learned all about the gangsters. Then, we headed for Milwaukee, before Thanksgiving because Pearl’s mother had invited us to have Thanksgiving with her family.

We stayed in Milwaukee and hey had some beautiful clubs there. All you had do was buy a glass of beer. The music was good, and so we danced.

Pearl was a twin, she had a twin brother, Donny was his name he was a pharmacist. He worked in a drugstore. He had a girlfriend, so we all went out a lot.  We stayed there about three days. Then, I said, “Well, I got to go.” I was headed for Los Angeles where we were going to dance to the Lawrence Welk Band. 

Pearl as a child. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen

I asked her if she wanted to meet me there, so we could go dancing. And she did. Once in Los Angeles we danced there a couple days. Then, I said I’ve got to go home back to Seattle. I says, “You gotta come out to Seattle” or something like that, anyway. I told her,  “I’ll take you if you want to ride in the backseat of my car.” And she did.

It took us two days. I brought her home, introduced her to my mother and dad. They went off in the living room and talked for two and a half hours while I unloaded my car. I had to go find a job. I didn’t have a job at that time. By then, I had became an apprentice with the butcher’s union. It cost me $25.

At that time we were known as the butcher's union. Today, we have two names: butchers and the meat cutters. Most of the meat cutters that work in the markets today don’t have the experience as I had it, taking a side of beef, breaking it down and boning it out, getting it ready to cut. Today, most of the meat cutters, men and women, they just cut meat. They know nothing about breaking it down, as I knew it.

So I found myself a job making about $25-28 a week. In that day, that was good money. My mother got Pearl a place to live right around the corner on 27th. By that time, my mother had bought a house. The first house they bought in Seattle was on 27th and Jefferson. (501 27th Ave) Right on that, southwest corner there.

Wasn’t Pearl worried about her family getting upset about her traveling with you? Wasn’t that pretty daring at that time?

I’m pretty sure her parents probably weren’t too happy. I can say they weren’t too happy.

She was an independent person?

She was an independent person. Yes.

Was she also Jewish?

Oh, yes. She was Jewish (laughs) Oh, I wouldn’t bring nobody (laughs and laughs)… I could bring nobody to our house that wasn’t Jewish at that time.

Did your families know each other from the old country?


Her parents just trusted you?

Her mother and dad came from some part of the old country and when our parents met they had plenty to talk about because their little shtetls (villages) were near each other. Her mother asked Pearl if she would marry a guy like Jack who drank so much. (laughs)

Their family (Pearl’s) had lost a sister, and lost a brother, and had another older brother who working in a tavern. Her dad was a manager in a liquor store. The family there somewhere along the line had liquor stores.

They’d rent a house and make a liquor store out of it in Milwaukee. The brother working in a tavern didn’t make much money. He always came home so that Pearl’s mother could make lunch for him. He’d always come home for lunch with his mother as the tavern was close by even though he lived in another house.

We got married in March. I told you how we didn’t ask to get married – she didn’t ask me to marry her and I didn’t ask her to marry me. It so happened that when she came to Seattle, she got a job working for a Rabbi. Pearl was very good at composing letters and she took minutes verbatim. After the first letter Pearl wrote for the Rabbi said, “Pearl, you’re not going anywhere you’re my Secretary.” He paid her $35 a week. 

Jack & Pearl's Wedding day. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen

Then, I got restless working in different meat markets, I couldn’t adjust, I was plenty shaky. I think I was making $35 a week at that time. So, I quit. I told them I just couldn’t work for them anymore. I don’t know, I don’t think Pearl said much about it after we got home from Milwaukee, and then I went to work. I told this fellow, I can’t work for him. He told me take a few days off but I just couldn’t go back.

Is that when you started the business on 23rd and Union?

There was a meat market in a building on 23rd and Union that had been closed during the war. Anyway, I went and looked into it to see what the rent was. The fellow who had it wanted $7,000 for the old equipment. It wasn’t worth 7 cents.

My Dad and Mother gave me the money to buy the place. I had to clean it up and get the fellow to start the machine up and put ammonia in it. I only had $5 of my own money to open up the meat market. What I did, I went to the poultry house, and the butcher shop because they knew the fella who’d had it for a good many years. Then, I went to the meat market. I learned how to buy cattle from the old man there. He was a grandfather, a fella’ from the old country. He bought cattle and he taught me how to buy cattle I wanted to sell.

It was about 1946 when I opened. At that time there was a lot of Jewish people in the neighborhood. They told my parents I wouldn’t make it. Fact is, I was too high. But I suffered there and then Frannie was born.

After I got married, I lived with my mother; she had a beautiful house with a mother-in-law apartment on the bottom floor there, complete with everything. That was on 36th & Marion.

That’s where Pearl and I lived, that’s where Frannie (our first child) was born. The house was sitting on top of the hill and we had problems getting the baby buggy to and from the house. I went and bought a house in Madison Park, on McGilvra. It might have been on the 1100 block. We moved into that house with a bedroom set, a kitchen table and a kitchen table. We had the living room and dining room painted but we didn’t have any furniture we moved in. Eventually, we had a card table in the kitchen and two boxes to sit on. That’s how we got started.

How did the business grow?

I was plenty worried. On Saturday night, I’d close the meat market up. Then, we’d figure out where we owed money and get out the envelopes. The meat company got this much; the poultry company got this much. Everything was in envelopes, no checks. That’s how we got started.

We ran a nice meat market. I gradually started adding shelves and groceries, I brought in milk, eggs and bread. When people started buying it off the shelf, it was no money-maker for me. See, there was a fella’ on 28th & Union in the grocery business; my parents knew him. What I did, I went down there one night on the way home and asked him to give me one of everything he had there in his store. I paid him the full price he had on the shelf. I asked him to just give me credit and I’d pay him back. That’s how I got started in the grocery business. 

Richlen's Meats & Grocery. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen
I put all those groceries on the shelves and when people came in they bought milk and bread, and then maybe they’d buy meat from me. At that time, there was a Gil’s Sausage Company up on 20th & Union. I went and talked to him, he told me how to make sausage out of pork. I went home and made this hot sausage. That’s also roughly when black folks started to move into the neighborhood. They told me what they wanted so I also started to sell to smoked ham hocks.  I went and looked for what they wanted to buy.

This was in the late 40s?

Yes, in the late 40s. I just wanted to stay in business. So people came in, bought milk and sausage, then people really liked the hot pan sausage, so I made more of it.  I had hot ground meat and eventually, I survived.

I had a little island like this (gestures with his hands indicating a table) and I did a good business out of it. I fixed the front (of the store) I bought this self-service meat case, I was the first one in Seattle to have a self-service meat case in a little store. And it worked out.

Eventually, I owned the building; the owner had sold me the building by at that time. The meat business had changed, prices started to get so high. The meat wasn’t the same quality either, they didn’t raise and feed the cattle as they had in the past.  I couldn’t get good tasting beef anymore.

Then the big store became available and the owner wanted to know if I wanted it and I said, “Hell, yes.” He knew I wanted more space. He and I, we had become good friends so he made the space available. That’s how I grew. I moved into the big store. People thought I was crazy because there was a Safeway, an A&P and the Trade-Well stores all right there around that corner.  People didn’t think I was going to make it but I did. I managed to pay everyone back. 
Jack's daughters - Frannie & Merle. Photo: Collection Jack Richlen

It sounds like you had a good relationship with the incoming black community. You were offering them goods they wanted instead of discouraging them from shopping with you.

I got to learn about them. I was friendly and I didn’t cheat people, see? I catered to their wants. Some people then couldn’t read or write, ‘cause they came from the south. My parents couldn’t read or write either so I knew how that was. Half of them got jobs from this Italian contracting company.

There was a period when a lot of the blacks worked for that man. He piled on a bunch of junk on them but only paid them $65 a week. That was real work at that time; it’s nothing like it is today.

They went to Safeway to cash their checks or they’d come to me.

I used to go to the bank on Friday and borrow money so I could cash people’s checks. And I never asked them for a fee. I had a system, people could come back in the meat department. I had my money there. They had their checks signed, I stamped them and whatever the check said; I’d pay them their money. Most people spent some money with me too but they knew if they came in to cash their check they would get their money in their hands. They could control it. Instead, at Safeway they’d get this itemized slip and (after shopping) they’d end up with whatever money was left. There were those who couldn’t read Safeway’s slips so I made sure that they got their cash in their hands.

Why did you decide to cultivate that business? Some stores, out of prejudice, didn’t encourage business from African-Americans. Did you feel they were being taken advantage of?

Well. In a way, I did.

Some of things people did to them. For example, real estate men sold them houses and would come back a year later and offer them $2,000 more than they’d paid for it.  By the time they got through the transaction, paying all these fees to sell the house, they wouldn’t have much of anything left, maybe $500.

When I rented, I charged $25 a month, as long as they kept the house up. That worked for both of us. I didn’t cheat my tenants. If something broke in the house, I went and fixed it myself because I wanted it done right. While I was there, I got to talk with them. Some tenants worked in my house, they had a key to the house. Pearl was at work and they go clean the house. When we’d get home it was clean. I’d come home and pay them.

There was this one fellow, Willie. My gosh, he worked for me for three years but I didn’t know he couldn’t read or write. I found out when he was buying something from someone and he didn’t like the terms. He wanted me to check it over for him. So, I did. He was a good man. Wonderful.

Richlen's Meats and Grocery. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen
When I first met Willie, he’d just got out of the army. He came in late at night, he didn’t have a place to stay yet. Next morning when I opened up Willie came in. Over his arm he had his jacket neatly pressed, he looked good. So I gave him work, and then more and more work. I had this big yard but when Willie went out there to work, he’d have a clean pressed shirt, clean jeans. The first day I went and introduced him to the neighbors so they’d know who he was. I didn’t want to hear anything about a black guy in the yard from the neighbors. Then, they got to talk to Willie. They saw Willie work and how he worked, and they all got to be friends.

The nicest thing about it, Willie had a key to the house. And when you went in after he’d worked in the house, he’d do the laundry, he’d clean the house while Pearl was at work and you’d come home and it would smell so good. He’d clean the car - nobody else could touch that car; that was Willie’s car. The neighbors saw he could go anywhere in the house – you could trust Willie.

You didn’t have to tell him anything; he knew what to do. Willie had a key to my truck; he didn’t have a car so he’d ride out way out there. When people saw my truck they knew Willie was there.

It sounds like you had a lot of empathy for people… Some who left the neighborhood in the late 1960s have said they moved because they felt anger and as if they were being singled out. It sounds like you were responding with sympathy rather than fear.

That’s true. I wasn’t afraid. Well, sometimes. I never put bars on the windows. The store was never was broke into. I just wanted to provide a good business. Some (of the black community) hated the chain stores especially how they wouldn’t stock food (for southern-style cooking).

I bought food that Safeway wouldn’t order or sell, I bought hams. Hell, I used to go to Lennon’s and get hams and have them smoked. If he had a bunch of ham hocks, he couldn’t use them, so I’d get them smoked up real hard. Also, the bacon rinds, I’d use a lot of those, I’d wrap them up and tie them up and they’d move right out of the meat case.

We didn’t have much trouble when our girls were working in the store. We knew many people in the neighborhood.

Since you had relationships with the people. I’ll bet you didn’t have much trouble with the Panthers, then.

No. No, we knew Elmer. They all came into the store. We all knew them. During the racial tensions there were other stores that had trouble, but that didn’t touch us.

Portrait Jack & Pearl. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen

It’s a funny thing how treating people like individuals makes all the difference.
Many people left the neighborhood and pointed to the Black Panthers as the reason why but it seems the story can be more complex.

In general, maybe some of the Jewish people, I don’t think they were too happy (with me) but I have to get to know people - just to know people.

You told me when rough guys would come into the store, Pearl had a way of talking to them.

She had a way of talking to them, one fella’ came in, he had a bag like that (indicates over his hand) and she talked him out of it. There was nobody else in the store but she talked him out of it. She had a way with her. She was quick, very quick, especially with jokes. Somebody would say a joke and she’d comeback with something.  She made people laugh. I treated her like a queen. I wanted her to dress nicely and she did. Pearl did have a way with people.

During the racially tense times, It sounds like both you and Pearl knew people and that saved you trouble.

I wasn’t afraid, I was never afraid. That last time they said they were going to have a riot. It was a nice day, it was real warm, probably it was in the summertime. It started across from the first house I ever owned in the Central Area, where a church is now.

There was a Jewish guy who owned that house and he wanted me to buy it from him in the worst way, he just haunted the hell out of me – on 23rd & Union. The house was up high and there was a mound of dirt in front of the house, with steps going up. It was an old-fashioned house, had been there for years.

For the last riot, there were these two fellas with these coats and hats on, looked like troublemakers, these two white guys. They were supposed to be the starting of the riot. They were the ones that were going to be all the noise. I wasn’t afraid of them. I didn’t tell them to get off the property, I told them to be quiet, don’t make a lot of noise and so they did. They were white, those two guys. Then, the people who ended up starting the riot were black not white.

The first riot was near the store. I went out and talked to them. I said, “Just don’t be destructive here, please. I’ve got people inside. I’m in the grocery business.” I told them, I employ blacks and they agreed with me. And they left the store alone.

There were few black guys who were loud talking who sold drugs. I just told them not to bother my customers. If you want to sell drugs, go across the street and sell them. I don’t want to see the cops come, get you and take you to jail. I don’t want to see that. Go across the street if you get into trouble, I won’t look at you. Some of them were greedy. Yes, some of them were stealers; I don’t doubt that some of them stole from me.

On that same block, I bought that brick building next to where the Liberty Bank was. When I bought that building, it had a beauty salon and a Chinese laundry.

Jack's Store on 23rd & Union. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen

It is a pretty building. The Neighbor Lady is in there now.

It was owned by a Chinese guy. He wouldn’t take a check or anything. It had to be cash. So I brought him $65,000 in one dollar bills, I took it all in. (laughs) He went crazy. I said, “You said cash. I’m giving you cash”. I went down and got those $100 dollar bill stacks from the bank.  I can still see him, the look on his face while he was counting it.

It must have weighed a ton.

Yeah, I was mad because I had to bring him a lot of cash. I thought aren’t you greedy? You might already have heard of him through Michelle (Purnell-Hepburn).

Anyway, that building was empty so I thought I’d put a tavern in there as there wasn’t one in the neighborhood. I wanted to open something really nice, no joke. I owned it for three years. Only once in all that time was the cops called and it was because of one guy fresh off the boat. The gal I hired, she was 6 feet tall from Louisiana. She came into the store looking for work but I didn’t have a job for her then but I took her phone number and kept it. When I started the tavern I called her, Herbie Allen, was her name. I hired to run the tavern. Oh, she was such a beauty. Oh, my God. She was gorgeous. Oh, was she gorgeous.

When I wanted to get out of the meat business that’s when I wanted to take over the gas station across the street. They had a service bay of 8 stalls. It was a big gas station. They never did much over there, the oil company there always lost money.  When the space came up empty, I called the oil company and met the real estate man and they rented me the place. I had to sell gas and that was ok with me. I didn’t want to pull the pumps or anything like that. I went in and remodeled it, filled all the holes up and put in a cinder floor in there.

You asked me earlier if I knew I was going to sell chicken? I didn't know what the hell I was going to do.
Draze - Mentions Richlen's Chicken in his song. Photo: Alexis Wolfe Photo

Draze song 'The Hood Ain't the Same' - (song mentions Richlen's Kickin' Chicken) 

That was how I operated, that’s the way I built my store. When I had an idea to break a wall down and put something in there, and I got the permission to do it, from the then owner. He liked what I did, the way I worked. The main thing I think he liked was, well, he had 13 grandkids, they all graduated high school and they were doing nothing but driving big cars and spending money.

He owned the Coleman Building because he married one of the Coleman daughters. That building had eight offices up stairs. There was a doctor, Dr. Ruben; a dentist, and two attorneys; a vacancy and a meeting hall.

I got the buildings was through the owner and his attorney, who was a Jewish man, though I didn’t know him. I talked to the attorney on the telephone his private number. The owner rented to me, he made it easy for me to buy the building. He discounted the contract over $50,000 and he gave me credit. That was because he raised the rent $50 when I moved in and so he gave me credit for three years.

The attorney told me all this, he said, Jack, he says, I think we can do something together. The owner didn’t care about the money, he just wanted to get out. He knew those kids were going to come (into the business). When his grandkids found out I bought the building they raised a lot of hell.

They disturbed the whole building, a lot of hell upstairs. So, I called the attorney, he said, “You know, Jack you’ll never have to worry about it again”. He knew those grandkids couldn’t be trusted. The owner was a real nice man and he was happy for me. 

Jack & Pearl Skiing. Photo:  Collection of Jack Richlen
How did you get involved with the Liberty Bank?

Well, crazy me. On Mondays I took my money to the bank, I did it myself. My family was scared as all hell. One Monday morning I went down to 13th and Union where the A&P was, the one that went out of business. I went across Madison, there’s a stop-light there now. At that time, the traffic was different than it is there now. I used to park there for a few minutes to see if the bank was open. One time unbeknownst to me, a guy quietly opened my truck door. He grab a hold of my money bag. I fought with him there so he ran across to the street to the A&P. In the meantime, the cops came, found him, shot him and killed him.

After that I made up my mind to do something about the banking situation. At that time, I was carrying maybe $12,000. I did a big business then. After that, I called for the armored cars to go around and pick up the money every Monday morning.

So how did you get involved in the Liberty Bank?

That’s got me started thinking about a Bank. I talked with Pearl and said we need a bank here. Let’s get people involved, so we approached some black leaders. Rev McKinney. We were good. He and I got along good. He didn’t ask me for anything, didn’t ask me for money from money. 

Liberty Bank Board. Jack at right. Photo:  Collection of Michelle Purnell-Hepburn

Pearl and I decided to work with this idea about a Bank. I knew Dr. Jackson up there on Union. Now, what was is office is surrounded up there on 19th with all kinds of junk. On the right hand side, it’s all boarded up.

That was his office there. We knew him, Mr. H.R. Garrett, George Tokuda, the Pharmacist, and Mr. Purnell.

After the bank went down, no one knew why, then SeaFirst took over. All of the sudden, it happened. They changed the name and the banking commission must have had something to do with it too. I didn’t hear anything after that.

I still love the bank; it cost me $45,000. I put every damn dime I had with SeaFirst in that bank, I lost it all when they closed the bank. That was it. The State took it over. I don’t know too much about it. There was another fellow, Ray Jones who had a fuel yard and about 25th & Union there. Ray Jones and Mr. Garrett were nice guys but they weren’t aware of what happened either.

Still, it must have been very exciting when it first opened.

Yes, very exciting. People from all over, even friends from west and south Seattle they all called me. At first, they were scared of the bank. I said you have nothing to worry about. I insisted that they get somebody to help them start the bank. SeaFirst was very liberal about giving them employees and SeaFirst paid them. They worked for the Bank but SeaFirst paid them.

One of the fellows, Bill, he was a card. He and Pearl they used to start talking and they’d needle each other – she was very good. 

Opening Day at the Bank. Photo:  Collection of Michelle Purnell-Hepburn

So, you were always engaging people who came in the store. What do you like? What do you want? That’s smart.

I used to give credit but I got screwed out of credit. I made up my mind one day, I’m going to go broke so that’s going have to go. Some people were very nasty, too. I said, “Just come in and shop with me, forget about what you owe me. Just come in and shop with me again. Some of them did and some of them knew that the deals I had in the houses, the charge of $25 a month rent that was cheap. You know Hardcastle, you’ve heard the name right?

I’ve heard the name plenty –

He’s one that screwed a lot of black folks here. He didn’t mind calling them that word either.

I sold him a dozen turkeys one time and he wasn’t going to pay me. I can tell you this in plain language, I cussed his ass out from the time he came in to the time I put on my coat back on, in front of all his employees. I cussed him out with good language too. You know what happened to him, he died a pauper. He bought a piece of property out there in Seward Park. It had stores in there and a walk-in basement. That’s where he lived, in the basement there. That’s where they found him, they found him dead in this building that he had bought. Once I heard that I never ever wanted to hear any more about it.

You asked me about the fried chicken I made?

In the gas station I had a two bathroom but only one of those rooms was used. People would come up and get the key from me. So, I had that unused extra space to redo and change. I had this crazy idea to make chicken. I learned how to make the mix; I worked on it myself. I bought two pots. I went down to Acme Poultry to the boss down there, Morris, and told him what I was going to do. He said, you know Ezell is there? I said, I’ll go down there, talk to him and tell him what I’m going to do. Ezell and I met, we talked it over. 

Your fried chicken was famous.

You know what was famous; it was the mix. I didn’t use the breading mix like Col. Sanders; I didn’t like that. That’s what I did different. That’s why I was successful.

What did you substitute, cornflakes?

No, flour. I used to have it in my head and I don’t anymore.

That’s ok.

Well, no one’s going to do what I did, ever. I used fresh chicken. At the end of week, Acme Poultry used to send me all the odds and ends: wings, drums. Hell, I never knew half the time what I was going to get. By 2 o’clock in the afternoon when they stopped killing down there and they were cleaning up, whatever was left at Acme, Richlen got. (laughs) I paid the price for whatever they brought me.

I developed my mix by I giving out free samples of wings and asking questions until I got it right. Once I found out what people liked, I stuck with it. 

You know, I never thought much of myself. I was just, you know (pauses) I was always paid good money when I worked because I knew what I was doing. 

[Jack Richlen came to this project via the efforts of Ian Eisenberg] 

Special thanks to Zachary Hitchcock for his hard work with transcription. 

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2014  All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials. 

This project was supported in part
by 4 Culture's Heritage Program

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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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