Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to LeGrand's original name as Bender's Market and the owners as William Bender and William Bender Jr. The correct name is Binder's Market. The original owners were William Binder and William Binder Jr. We regret the error and thank them for giving our city the best bratwurst around.
Jim LeGrand can't help but laugh when he talks about how St. Louisans referred to St. Louis Hills when Binder's Market, the store that would become LeGrand's Market & Catering (4414 Donovan Avenue, 314-353-6128), opened in 1937.
"It was just cornfields and marsh when Cyrus Crane Willmore came in and made the subdivisions St. Louis Hills Estates and St. Louis Hills in 1935 or 1936," LeGrand says. "Mr. [William] Binder had a store in the inner city and decided to build a store there — in 'the county,' which is what they called it then. His friends thought he was crazy to go that far out."
While much has changed since Binder opened Binder's Market — the combination grocery, butcher shop, cleaners and bakery that would go on to become LeGrand's — its current owner is proud of what remains the same. LeGrand still displays the Tom Boy grocery chain sign above the store's front entrance, carries a wide variety of high-quality meats that are cut to order and, most importantly to him, maintains warm, personal relationships with his customers.
These tenants of the business were instilled in him by Binder's son, William Binder Jr. In 1977, LeGrand started working at Binder's and immediately gravitated to Binder Jr., who had taken over the shop from his father 20 years prior. LeGrand's own father had passed away a few years before he started the job, and Binder Jr. took him under his wing, telling him the business's history (it had the first frozen-food case west of the Mississippi), showing him the tricks of the trade and serving as a father figure to the then-teenage LeGrand.
LeGrand soaked it all in.
"I started working there as a bagger when I was 16, and we just hit it off," LeGrand says. "The grocery business came easy to me because my mom and dad owned a confectionary called Pete's Market, and I was the one there selling penny candy. I was very familiar with working with the public, and I loved it. I loved seeing people and talking to people and knowing everybody."
Though he had a knack for the grocery business, LeGrand was passionate about horticulture and was pursuing studies in the field at St. Louis Community College-Meramec while working at Binder's. However, as his responsibilities increased at the store, he made himself indispensable — so much that when Bender Jr. retired in 1987, he sold the store to LeGrand and his brother, Joseph LeGrand. Though they kept the name the same for the first four years, they finally put their own stamp on the place in 1991 when they bought the building and christened it LeGrand's Market & Catering.
LeGrand has always understood the importance of maintaining Bender's legacy, even while he and his brother made the place their own. Any changes — such as beefing up the catering business — have been gradual and are always in keeping with the market's spirit. Perhaps the biggest addition is the store's robust sandwich business, which started in 1998 thanks to some very St. Louis-style inspiration.
"We started it in 1998, during the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home-run race," LeGrand says. "We came up with the McGwire sandwich chased with Sosa sauce, and from there, we started adding sports-themed sandwiches. It just blew up. Our sandwich guy, Joe Scanlon, has been doing it here for almost 30 years, and he's come up with practically every sandwich in the deli, as well as all the homemade sauces. He just has a way with doing things. He loves food and is an incredible cook."
One thing LeGrand and his brother, who passed away six years ago, never considered changing was the market's famous bratwurst. As LeGrand explains, the brats are the market's definitive offering, drawing in fans from all over the area; he's so convinced of its quality that he often sends samples home with first-time customers, convinced they will fall in love with the sausage and come back. They always do.
"This is the story of the bratwurst — and it's something not everyone knows," LeGrand says. "In 1985, I was the head meat cutter, and Mr. Bender had ordered these spice packets that sat on top of the meat case. The idea was that customers could buy the packets, add it to beef and pork, and make their own sausage. No one ever bought it ... so we decided we had to do something with it. We decided to modify it so that it would work for bratwurst, so we added a few more ingredients, and that's how it came to be."
LeGrand believes his market's bratwurst has such a cult following because it's different from other versions. Whereas the sausage is typically made with nutmeg, mace, dairy products and soy protein concentrate, LeGrand's bratwurst has a more garlic-forward profile. Over the years, he and his team have added several more varieties, each of which has gone on to become wildly popular as well, including one made with pineapple and brown sugar and another spicy one that's generously infused with jalapeños.
Though he credits much of the market's popularity to its bratwurst, sandwiches and quality meats, LeGrand understands that there is a deeper reason people continue to support his business. He is immensely grateful to his staff and believes that having the right people in his corner has helped him to succeed. Everyone who works at the shop — including his son, who is poised to take over the business when the time comes — is invested in making sure that anyone who walks through the front doors has a great experience, whether that means coming up with exciting new offerings or taking the time to chat with someone who might be unsure how to cook a particular cut of meat. LeGrand's is a butcher counter, sure, but what the market really offers are relationships.
"It's, 'Hi Mary, hi Bob. How are your kids and grandma?' and they are right back at me with the same question," LeGrand says. "It's all about customer service and treating people the way you want to be treated. A 'hello' and 'thank you' are massive. We love what we do here, and it feels really good to do something the people love."