Casino Deli has ended its 35-year run on Welsh Road in Northeast Philadelphia, as the building in front of Blue Grass Plaza has been sold, as has its beer license.
The closing, about two weeks ago, further changes the landscape of the Northeast, which was once dotted with Jewish delis. Changing demographics, the corporatization of the sandwich trade, and a general public aversion to schmaltz have essentially made the deli chopped liver.
"My customers are dying off every single week," said owner Steve Rosen, who started working there at age 13 - 45 years ago - busing tables for his father. Manny Rosen, who also had grown up in the deli business, managed what was then a Barson's Deli at 2425 Welsh Rd.
To dramatize his point, Rosen noted that a daily breakfast gathering of 40 men, not too long ago, had dwindled to two.
The Rosens bought the place from Barson's in 1980, taking Casino as the name in honor of the casino buses that stopped outside. Customers would eat breakfast at the deli, take the $5 bus to Atlantic City, and many times sit down for dinner upon their return. As his father eased out of the business, Steve Rosen took it over.
For decades, business was solid both in the restaurant and its counter. About 2000, Rosen said, he noticed a change in the neighborhood, including Section 8 housing and a new methadone clinic. Then a Wawa opened a half-mile up Blue Grass Road, eating into his sandwich trade. Off-premises catering - always a delicatessen's bread and butter - had been strong, Rosen said.
His parents' deaths - Bobby in 2012, Manny in 2014 - hurt. "I lost a lot of passion for the business," Steve Rosen said. "When he died, a part of the store died."
"I still have the passion for the food," he said.
Between the usual day-to-day stress of running a 40-employee restaurant and what had become declining profits, "I was just killing myself," Rosen said. "But it was so hard to let go."
Rosen successfully steered away his children from the deli life, so there was no next generation eager to work the slicer or make 50-gallon pots of matzo-ball soup.
"I can't tell you how many weekends, I was working," he said. "We'd go to a wedding and we were the first ones out because I had to be up at 4 in the morning. Holidays, New Year's, I was working. We were so busy between Thanksgiving and Jan. 2, I would not be off one day. Seven days a week, 3 in the morning till 5 o'clock. ... I married a woman [Sherri] who never really pressured me, but sometimes I know it bothered her."
Still, Rosen felt that he could not retire. And he didn't.
Rosen forwarded Casino's phone number to their business, operating as Casino Classic Catering, based in Bucks County.
The new owner's plans for Casino's building have not been disclosed; the Casino name, in any case, will not remain.