Historic specialty grocery store in SF is saved by loyal customer

Versie Dortch

When Lehr’s German Specialties abruptly closed its doors last August after nearly 50 years as San Francisco’s dedicated shop for hard-to-find German brands and imported treats — it didn’t stay closed for long. 

Hannah Seyfert, a loyal customer who moved to San Francisco from Germany in 2016, often frequented Lehr’s for a taste of “heimat,” or home. She took comfort in the little specialty shop on Church Street that carried all of the familiar brands she’s enjoyed since childhood. So when it closed, she called its owner, Brigitte Lehr, and made her an offer.

After months of renovating the space, including new flooring, fresh coats of paint and restocking the aisles with all of her favorite fruit jams, cheese sausages, crusty breads, artisan chocolates and stinky cheeses, Seyfert reopened Lehr’s in late November that same year and welcomed back customers from the neighborhood and beyond. 

A picture attached to the pole shows the difference of the interior of Lehr's German Specialties from its original owners and how it looks now under the new ownership of Hannah Seyfert in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
A picture attached to the pole shows the difference of the interior of Lehr’s German Specialties from its original owners and how it looks now under the new ownership of Hannah Seyfert in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“All over the store, we have these little pictures to show how it would’ve looked like six months ago if you were standing here,” said Seyfert, as she pointed to a small, framed photograph tacked to a pole. “It’s like a memory lane and it’s important for us to show that the store has a very long history.”

Since Lehr’s reopened, Seyfert said customers trek all the way from Tahoe, Nevada City and Sacramento. One couple from Santa Barbara didn’t even stop to check into their hotel — their first stop was Lehr’s. 

“We’ve been so crazy busy, I’m just hoping we can keep up with that,” Seyfert said. “We’re working on the web shop right now, so customers from everywhere else can order.”

From left: Hannah Seyfert, who recently purchased Lehr's German Specialties from Brigitte Lehr, its original owner. The two are pictured with longtime employee of Lehr's, Ingrid, who worked for the store for 18 years. 

From left: Hannah Seyfert, who recently purchased Lehr’s German Specialties from Brigitte Lehr, its original owner. The two are pictured with longtime employee of Lehr’s, Ingrid, who worked for the store for 18 years. 


Courtesy of Hannah Seyfert

The original sign hangs inside just above the door at Lehr's German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
The original sign hangs inside just above the door at Lehr’s German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

A photo of Brigitte and Boris Lehr, the original owners of Lehr's German Specialties hangs on the wall of the store in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
A photo of Brigitte and Boris Lehr, the original owners of Lehr’s German Specialties hangs on the wall of the store in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


(Left clockwise) Hannah Seyfert, Brigitte Lehr, and Ingrid (Courtesy of Hannah Seyfert); Lehrʻs Original Sign; Photo of Brigitte and Boris Lehr (Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE)

Lehr’s was originally founded in 1953 by Hans Speckmann, known as the man behind Speckmann’s, a former German deli and bierstube on Church Street. It changed hands in the mid-1970s when Lehr took over the German specialty store with her late husband. 

Seyfert told SFGATE there are many old posters and photographs left over from the original Lehr’s that were handed down to her, and she intends to hang them soon to complete the store. 

And although you can still smell the fresh paint and there isn’t a speck of dust to be found, Seyfert shows her respect for the store’s history by also hanging the old Lehr’s sign above the doorway so customers, new and returning, can get a glimpse of the past.

A customer walks into Lehr's German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
A customer walks into Lehr’s German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“Usually, the first reaction is really, ‘Wow! This looks really different,’” she said. “I would say 98% of people are really excited, and really happy about how it looks. It’s easier to navigate, they can find things easier, there is more space for moms with strollers, for example.”

During my Tuesday afternoon visit before Lehr’s opened for the day, many eager customers popped in to say hello to Seyfert and see if they could start shopping. 

“One customer came in, and he said he grew up in Milwaukee, where there’s a large German community, and he said he remembers all these things from his childhood and he was just really happy about getting that memory back and it makes me happy to provide that,” Seyfert said.

Chocolates made by Goldhelm Schokoladen Manufaktur, BrŸckentrŸffel, and other german food items available at Lehr's German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Chocolates made by Goldhelm Schokoladen Manufaktur, BrŸckentrŸffel, and other german food items available at Lehr’s German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

German style sausages and cheese are some of the food items available at Lehr's German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
German style sausages and cheese are some of the food items available at Lehr’s German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Fresh pretzels available at Lehr's German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Fresh pretzels available at Lehr’s German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Lehr's German Specialties new owner Hannah Seyfert holds a wheat and rye bread that is one of the German food items available at her store in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Lehr’s German Specialties new owner Hannah Seyfert holds a wheat and rye bread that is one of the German food items available at her store in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


(Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE)

These enthusiastic shoppers are stopping by for specialty items not carried at regular big box stores, such as fresh-baked loaves of bread that are handmade in Hamburg, Germany. Every Wednesday, Seyfert stocks the loaves front and center, and they sell out quickly. The loaves come par-baked, so customers can finish baking at home and fill their kitchens with the warm, toasty aromas of fresh graubrot (crusty bread).

“The sausages are also incredibly popular. My supplier, he can’t keep up with my demand,” Seyfert said. 

One delicious variety carried at Lehr’s is the kasekrainer, a smoked sausage with cubes of melted cheese throughout. They come frozen, but once cooked fresh at home, the first bite is met with that satisfying snap from the sausage casing, followed by sharp notes of creamy cheddar cheese. Seyfert said she orders about 10 times the amount of sausages previously carried in the store just to keep up with her customers’ appetites. She also carries the brand Wurstmeister Benz, a small sausage maker near the Sierra Nevada Foothills, on the first and third Saturdays of the month. 

“We’re trying to focus on local as much as we can,” Seyfert said. “Obviously, most of the stuff is from Germany, and it’s hard to get locally. But if we can, we do.”

Lehr's German Specialties new owner Hannah Seyfert helps a customer search for candies at Lehr's German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Lehr’s German Specialties new owner Hannah Seyfert helps a customer search for candies at Lehr’s German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

A trip through the well-curated aisles at Lehr’s also reveals plenty of fruit jams, such as plum butter, apple jelly and rosehip with its sweet floral notes. There are artisan chocolates flecked in gold leaf by Goldhelm Schokolade, crispy butter biscuit cookies that many families would give their children after school and even familiar brands like Haribo, but imported from Deutschland and made without corn syrups. 



Seyfert also hangs QR codes next to certain German pantry staples such as dry egg noodles, pickled white asparagus and sour cherries. The codes lead to recipes, so that customers can try their hand at new flavors and learn how to incorporate these ingredients at home. 

Besides pantry goods, Seyfert carries an array of German cheeses. From the strong, aromatic limburger to spreadable butter cheese, smoked or flavored with beer, it’s all stocked at Lehr’s from small German companies that specialize in the craft. 

“It’s passing on your culture. The easiest way to make people understand your culture is always food,” Seyfert told SFGATE. “So that was the main driver for me to continue the business and just continue showing what German food is like, and making that food and how that food makes people happy.”

Lehr's German Specialties new owner Hannah Seyfert rings out a customer at the register at Lehr's German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Lehr’s German Specialties new owner Hannah Seyfert rings out a customer at the register at Lehr’s German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

German food items available at Lehr's German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
German food items available at Lehr’s German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Chocolates made by Goldhelm Schokoladen Manufaktur at Lehr's German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Chocolates made by Goldhelm Schokoladen Manufaktur at Lehr’s German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

A customer browses the items at Lehr's German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
A customer browses the items at Lehr’s German Specialties in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


(Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE)

On Fridays, Seyfert carries baked goods by Hahdough, a San Francisco bakery dedicated to German recipes such as the classic bee sting cake, a double-layer confection with vanilla cream and topped with a honey-almond crunch. Customers are also after Berliners, a wildly popular berry jam- or cream-filled spongy doughnut dusted in powdered sugar. 

Another must-have bite at Lehr’s are the German-style pretzels by Squabisch, a family-owned shop in Berkeley. Owner Sabine Herrmann told SFGATE she met Seyfert at an event where she was selling her hand-twisted pretzels and the two instantly bonded over their love for German food and culture. 

On Saturdays, Seyfert’s customers expect their Squabisch delivery of Asiago and classic-flavored pretzels as well as pudgy pretzel rolls dusted with sea salt. Lehr’s is currently the only store in the city that sells these small-batch varieties, which don’t stay stocked for long. 

As Seyfert prepared to open Lehr’s during my visit, she took a deep breath as she surveyed the new space with a great sense of pride. Her mother, who was visiting from Germany, said owning her own specialty store has always been her daughter’s dream. Seyfert nodded, and added she aims to be a place that uplifts small German makers like Squabisch and Hahdough, but also wants to remind others like her that home isn’t too far away.

Lehr's German Specialties new owner Hannah Seyfert poses with some of the german food items available at her store in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.
Lehr’s German Specialties new owner Hannah Seyfert poses with some of the german food items available at her store in the Noe Valley of San Francisco, Calif. on Jan. 29, 2023.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“Food is always linked to memories and to the people who gave that food to you. So for me, this is home,” Seyfert said.

Lehr’s German Specialties, 1581 Church St., San Francisco. Open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.



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