Steve Stein, owner of Steve Stein’s Famous Deli, credits his relationship with his customers as the reason he’s able to continue with the successful business.
When Steve Stein steps out of his office and enters his deli, the line of customers erupts with greetings and good mornings. Stein knows his customers well, greeting and taking orders by name before he even reaches the register.
“My customers are now my friends,” he said. “I’ve known them so many years, they’re like my friends. We have people who come here every day.”
Stein is the owner of Steve Stein’s Famous Deli, a business he says he keeps simple.
“Most delis in Philadelphia today are deli restaurants,” Stein said. “We’re just a deli. That’s our main business.”
The Jewish deli does feature a dine-in area, but don’t let it fool you — Stein’s focus is on the quality of the product, and the satisfaction of the customer.
“We sell at a much lesser price than most, but the quality is the most important thing we do,” he said.
Northeast Philadelphia was once a haven for Jewish delis. Stein estimated there would be two per block when the deli opened its first location around the early 1960s, and said there were about 150 in the area.
“There’s only one of us left,” he said. He said when he first started, there were six delis in a three-block area.
Stein stressed that there may be some deli restaurants, but not as many straightforward just-the-basics delis.
Residents can still get their pastrami on rye at other locations in the city, but if they want to stay in the Northeast, options are thin. Jack’s Delicatessen, once a Northeast landmark, closed its doors at the beginning of June.
Jack’s deli-restaurant opened in 1966. Eddie Mutchnick, one of the owners, declined an interview with the Northeast Times before the deli closed.
In 2015, Casino Deli, another once-beloved landmark, ended its 35-year run at Blue Grass Plaza.
The deli decline can be attributed to many factors, such as shifting dieting trends — millennials typically opt for “fast casual” dining at places such as Chipotle or Panera Bread, for example. They stray from the habitual eating habits of their predecessors.
Another possibility is changing demographics. A 2011 study shows a dramatic shift in the Northeast population. The Pew Charitable Trusts found that the area went from 92 percent white in 1990 to 58.3 percent in 2010.
Stein’s has so far been able to avoid such declines. Walking through the crowded deli on a Wednesday afternoon, the deli has one undeniable advantage: customer loyalty.
Sharon Leib said she’s been following the business for 50 years.
“I get my bagels and lox here every Sunday,” she said, sitting in the dine-in area while her lunch was being prepared. She said she comes at least once a week, if not to order some food, then to pick up produce.
Leib’s had a long path to follow. This is the deli’s fourth iteration — it was originally Stein Boys when Stein’s father and brothers were involved. It was first located on Bustleton Avenue, before moving to Krewstown Road and then the Krewstown Shopping Center.
Now, it’s nestled beside Randi’s Restaurant and Bar in Grant Plaza, at 1619 Grant Ave.
Stein said he’s noticed a small bump in the number of customers since Jack’s closed, but more believes that having competition drives up sales.
“It’s always better to have competition,” Stein said, his booming voice filling the office. “Keeps you better. Keeps you smarter.”
Stein takes a lot of pride in his deli — salads and meats are prepared in house, which he said “not many people do anymore.” Most of all, he’s proud of his customers.
Marie Leidtke has been working at the deli for 10 years.
“I can tell you every customer’s name,” she said. “I can tell you what they’ll eat, too.”
“This business is as much as anything else a relationship business,” Stein said. “They become friends after so many years. I can’t remember when I didn’t know them.” ••