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MARKETS : Speck and Sprats

August 19, 1993|LINDA BURUM

Ernie's European Imports, 8400 8th Ave., Inglewood, (213) 752-1002. Open Monday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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The reports that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a customer at Ernie's turned out to be true. This old-fashioned, Continental-Austrian delicatessen in Inglewood stocks Arnold's favorite Mozart gift chocolates and deli items. But don't rush over expecting to bump into him in the aisles. "Schwarzenegger has his stuff delivered," says Ernie's Bob Hess, who co-owns the shop with Peter Gruschka.

Ernie's doesn't reserve its special treatment for the famous. To accommodate loyal customers who had moved away (some as far as Alaska or Texas), the 53-year-old deli developed a mail-order business that began somewhat serendipitously.

"Customers would call Ernie asking for 'a little favor,' " says Hess, reminiscing about his stepfather, Ernie Colton, the shop's founder. "They'd want him to send them their favorite Hungarian salami or the latest German-language films." Colton, always enthusiastic about pleasing a customer, happily complied. Word got around, requests multiplied, and finally the store printed a Christmas catalogue and organized a mailing system.

In the '40s, most of Ernie's customers were Austrians, Germans and Eastern Europeans from the neighborhood. Many had relocated there before World War II, when troubles were beginning to flare up in Europe. But now the deli has become an L.A. phenomenon--an institution like Claro's Italian Market in San Gabriel or Norwegian Imports & Bakery in San Pedro--a store that seems misplaced in a neighborhood enormously changed by the city's shifting population. Since Ernie's is surrounded by several Louisiana gumbo restaurants and fish markets that stock Southern buffalofish and gaspergou , it would be easy to miss this shop in its secluded side-street location.

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Colton, says Hess with pride, built up a good clientele by depending on old-fashioned virtues--offering attentive service, selecting the finest products and catering to his customers' whims. Colton, who had been a pharmacist in Austria, established a successful deli concession inside the Lintz market across the street from Ernie's current location. But he really wanted a place he could own. After almost 20 years at Lintz, he bought three tiny shops in 1952 and converted them into one large, very plain shop.

Ernie's new deli cases had the same careful selection of fine hams, salami, cheese and cured fish that Colton's customers demanded. But patrons came in for more than the food. Ernie's, says Hess, had what German's call Gemutlichkeit , an atmosphere of warmth and fellowship. Customers gathered at the plain Formica-covered tables for coffee and Strudel or a sandwich. In the time-worn ritual of staid Viennese coffeehouses, they would discuss the news of the day with the jovial Ernie.

At the shop until the week before he died at age 84, Colton came in to socialize and be sure everything was up to snuff. "My stepfather knew everything about his customers; they were like family," Hess says. He remembered what their favorite items were, and what their kids were doing at school.

Many of the old regulars who drive over on weekends to stock up now share their gossip with Colton's widow, Shari, who is always at the counter. Hess and Ernie's son-in-law, Gruschka, seem genuinely proud to be carrying on Ernie's traditions.

"Some of our customers have been with us so long we know exactly what they want," Hess claims, illustrating his point as a familiar customer walks in the door. He speculates that the man will order a turkey breast sandwich with Butterkase on rye.

"I'll have a turkey breast sandwich on rye with Butterkase-- dry," the man tells Shari, as if ordering it for the first time.

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The next customer to come in is a woman. "She'll probably buy her usual three tubes of German face cream," Hess guesses. She does.

Over the years little has changed at the shop. Now the green corrugated paper on the wall behind the Oktoberfest travel posters and Austrian Alps scenes is slightly faded. But the Wurstwaren are still from top purveyors such as Schaller and Webber in New York. Fancy European cookies, breads, candies, European sundries and medicinal teas are displayed with precision. And Ernie's prides itself on a fabulous stock of wines and spirits from every corner of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Maybe Schwarzenegger has his stuff delivered. And some customers may need to shop from Ernie's by mail. But there's nothing like visiting in person. For now, at least, you can still get advice from Peter or Bob on the pedigree of that 30-year-old Hungarian Tokaj wine displayed behind the counter. Sample a sausage or cheese before making your final decision or bone up on the techniques of cooking with Hungarian kolbasz before you go up the street to try out that interesting-looking gumbo restaurant.

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