No good can come from growing up in a deli. You snack on salami and cheese puffs and Pepsi. You are assaulted by Air Supply songs while working the Daily News cryptogram on a back-counter butcher block on Ludlow Street in Upper Darby. Instead of learning to trade stocks like your dad, you win a fifth-grade writing contest for “Days At My Dad’s Store,” only to end up a journalist who, by May 2019, gets the bright idea to hop onto a Dietz & Watson cold-cut delivery truck in search of a story.
But you experience a part of Americana that is, by all accounts, slowly dying: the neighborhood deli. Whether in the city or the suburbs, East Coast delis for generations have been our Old Village Square. Relationships blossom with each over-the-counter chat. You have to talk to a person to buy a thing.
Delis often die when their founders do. They are 80-hour-a-week jobs. And today, with fast-growing Wawa and supermarkets corporatizing our cold-cut options, mom-and-pops are harder to keep around.
So I hopped into a Dietz & Watson truck with a Teamster nicknamed “Touch." He runs the same route where, had he been around a generation ago, would have included my family’s old place, Ariston.
Ten hours. Sixteen shops. Me, 39-year-old Matt Toucheloskie, and a rumbling, refrigerated, 20-foot box truck packed with meats and cheeses on D&W Route 9. Come along before it’s gone, folks.
A Dietz & Watson sign glowed like Vegas neon in the dark predawn sky as I pulled into the family-owned cold-cut manufacturer on Tacony Street in Northeast Philadelphia. Inside a refrigerated warehouse, there were idled robots that may one day be doing the work of the people I saw moving boxes on conveyors. Matt was at a loading dock.
He was placing the last boxes of cold cuts into his truck. The food-processing plant next door would, upon our return in the afternoon, be throwing off the scent of mesquite into the air outside.
Matt — his Coal Country buddies back in hometown Shamokin call him “Touch” — is as much a dying breed as the shops he serves: a company driver and salesman. Used to be guys like him were employed all over. But 80 years after its founding, Dietz won’t outsource. Matt and I drove off in a reconditioned 2000 Freightliner - a box truck with 346,000 miles that roared like a lion.
“Did you grow up with hoagies?” I asked.
“Subway,” he replied.
I was horrified. Things got worse as Matt shifted the topic to so-called cheesesteak hoagies — that profane marriage of grilled chipped steak with lettuce and tomato. I told him this so-called Philly staple is a sacrilege. He’s lived here 20 years but still doesn’t know all our odd sandwich names.
“Where I’m from in Shamokin," he replied, "that’s called a Cheesesteak In The Garden.”
I shook my head as we headed down I-95 toward Delco.
Frank Hill was waiting inside Colonial Kitchen for a crew to clean the exhaust hood over the grill. Matt walked in, went to the back, opened a ledger, and grabbed a check written to Dietz. Then, he shot the breeze with Frank, the prep guy he’s known for years. Frank showed Matt a picture of his new grandchild on his phone.
“They lost yesterday, too,” Frank said. (Matt is a Phillies nut. And a music fanatic with a massive vinyl collection, too.)
“Yeah,” Matt said. “That was pretty bad.”
This is what happens at a deli. You get to know people. Transactions become friendships.
Penny Kavallieratos and her uncle, George, pulled into their Clifton Heights parking lot minutes after our truck did. It was time to open Penny’s Restaurant for business. They let us inside.
“Hey, George!” Penny yelled to the kitchen from the register, while flapping a white bank envelope with money inside. “Give it to the dried-beef guy!”
The empty metal folding chair by the butcher block. That’s where much of the love happens inside Westbrook Market in Clifton Heights.
For 40 years, that chair is where Joe Poiese, now 61, has watched customers come in, sit down, and make themselves at home inside this market that’s been open for 78 years. As Matt filled a hand truck of lunchmeat out back, Poiese gave me the quick low-down.
“We sell a lot of chicken cutlets, we make our own potato salad," he said, “and people like to come in and just talk."
Turkey is king in today’s lunchmeat hierarchy. But the meat case at Centrella’s in Havertown? It’s full of everything. A cross-section of two generations of deli food.
Liverwurst and Olive Loaf for the old folks; sopressata, genoa in natural casing, prosciutto for Italian hoagies; enough roast beef to live up to the promise: Free Container of Gravy With Every Pound Purchase of Roast Beef.
A.J. Loustau, 32, a Haddonfield native, bought Centrella’s in 2010 after ditching a life as a college grad with a business degree and a cubicle job. He now works seven days a week. And here is why:
“A lot of my friends hate their jobs,” he said. “They’re off on the weekends, but they sit in a box [all week]."
A.J. keeps a tab with the names of kids sent by their parents to buy stuff without money. He loves that he knows his customers. And the delivery guy.
“Who’s my favorite musician?” Matt asked.
“Ozzy,” A.J. replied with an eye roll.
“How many times have I seen him?” Matt asked.
“Sixty-three — or something crazy.”
This is the motherlode. A mecca of deli awesomeness. Before now, I’d sworn to myself that I would never share this place with readers for fear of ruining it. At 9:33 a.m. on Monday, that ended when I stormed into Farm Fresh Produce in Drexel Hill, a place founded 35 years ago by ex-Primos Elementary School teacher and principal, Pattie and Tom Sangillo.
It opened as a produce place but soon added a deli.
“We were gonna throw bags of fruit at people and drive Mercedeses,” Pattie said with an amused deadpan. "That didn’t work.”
Today, even with a Wawa directly across the street and Tom still working seven days a week at age 78, they are ablaze with business.
“You have to adapt," Tom said, "because you’re working against big companies now.”
I asked, pointing to Matt: “Who’s his favorite band?”
Tom played along: “Glenn Miller?”