By DON SHILLING
VINDICATOR BUSINESS EDITOR
73-YEAR-OLD WEST SIDE WOMAN who helps people all over the country get in touch with their roots now is bringing a bit of the Old Country to her hometown.
Elizabeth Szabo and her son, Ernie, recently opened Paprika Cafe at 2626 Mahoning Ave. The restaurant is bringing authentic Hungarian dishes -- chicken paprikas, pork and sauerkraut, and stuffed cabbage -- to area residents.
While running a restaurant is new for Elizabeth Szabo, bringing Hungarian heritage to others is not.
For the past 18 years, she has been running a catalog business from her home, shipping Hungarian-related items to all 50 states and a few foreign countries. The company, Magyar Marketing, has a mailing list of 14,000 people and supplies items such as shirts, books, music and various gift items.
She named the company after the Magyars, an ethnic group that settled in Hungary as Europe was being formed. Magyar later became an alternative name for native Hungarians.
Szabo herself is an American, having been born in Pittsburgh. But her father came to his country from Hungary when he was 15 and her mother's family also was of Hungarian descent.
She came to Youngstown in the early 1970s when her husband, Elmer, was needed in the family's funeral home business. When he died shortly afterward, she became director of the International Institution, which helped area immigrants adapt to life in this country.
That work led her to being named fraternal director for a national Hungarian fraternal organization, and it was in that job that she saw a business opportunity.
People from all over the country were sending her letters asking where they could find Hungarian maps, flags and other items.
"There was a whole horde of people asking for this. It was a market niche," she said.
Growing catalog business
Szabo, who has a master's degree in ethno-musicology and immigration history from Kent State University, found some suppliers for such items and printed out a flier that she sent to people. She laughs now at the meager attempt at direct mail because the flier had just 20 items.
"But there was so much response that I just said, 'Uh-oh.'"
She quickly decided to expand, which was difficult. It was before the fall of the Soviet Union, so she was limited to finding domestic suppliers of Hungarian items.
She found enough, however, that she put together a black-and-white catalog, then a color catalog and next a Web site.
Today, she uses about 80 suppliers from around the world. She sends out a catalog in the fall with about 200 items, though her Web site -- magyarmarketing.com - has many more. Also, she often sends out another catalog in the spring.
When she was starting out, she developed the business by going to church festivals in the area. She displayed some of her products and asked people if they wanted to be on a mailing list.
Many people signed up, and word of her business quickly spread among Hungarian clubs that operate throughout the United States.
"There are pockets of Hungarians everywhere," she said.
Her biggest problem now making the large-scale operation more manageable. Sending out catalogs to everyone on her list is too expensive, so she is working on ways to pare the list back to about 8,000 or 10,000 people.
Plus, she has the restaurant, though son Ernie runs the daily operations. He also is a math teacher in the Girard schools, so he works at the restaurant in the evenings and on weekends, while other staff handles the lunch business on weekdays.
Caters to people
Elizabeth Szabo said she started thinking of opening a restaurant 10 or 12 years ago when another catalog retailer suggested it.
Her daughter, Liz Vos of Evansville, Ind., said the family members had kicked around possible locations and finally decided to go forward.
"The idea had incubated long enough," she said.
Szabo and her son, who loves to cook for the family, used some old recipes that had been handed down through the family and others that they had picked up from Hungarian immigrants in the area.
"We get a lot of families that come and say they grew up with this food," Elizabeth Szabo said. "They just don't know how to make it any more."
People have learned to rely on Szabo for more than just Hungarian products and Hungarian food, however. She often gets phone calls from customers who need a translation of a Hungarian word or from people who can't find the village of their ancestors. Others are looking for a particular Hungarian song that their grandfather used to sing.
"I'm service-oriented," she said with a smile. After pausing, she added, "And that's not good."
It's not good because providing such service isn't as easy as it used to be, she said.
"The Lord keeps taking a little bit of my energy all the time," she said.