We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
Customers at Koch's Deli never leave hungry...and that's before they even unwrap their sandwiches. Whether standing right next to the counter or in the long lines that pour out of the tiny West Philadelphia shop, everyone who visits is treated to samples of the delicatessen classics while they wait. A pile of thin shaved corned beef is as likely to land in an outstretched hand as a half-sour pickle spear or a quarter slice of whitefish-bearing rye.
It's been that way ever since 1967, when Lou and Bob Koch took over the deli their parents had opened the year before, stepping in after their father Sid was disabled in a car accident. Over the course of the next quarter century, the brothers, under the watchful eye of their mother Fran, turned the storefront off 43rd and Locust Streets into an institution. Their giant sandwiches stuffed with up to four different lunchmeats, their handspun milkshakes and their freely given tastes became a quintessential part of life for thousands in the area.
In 1995, Lou died of a heart attack at age 50, leaving Bob to run the place on his own. Although his older brother had been the deli's more prominent face, Bob soldiered on, drawing joy from joking and laughing with the many satisfied regulars. Ten years later, Bob suffered an aneurysm and died in his sleep. He was 58.
Neither Lou nor Bob had children, but they were survived by a younger brother. Barry Koch was busy with his career as a doctor, but he was determined not to let his family's deli legacy end. Instead, he turned to Ezra Haim, the deli man to whom Barry had entrusted the catering for his brother's funeral.
For a decade, Haim had run a spot called City Line Deli, but he was ready for something new. He sold the large, Main Line shop, enlisted friend and fellow Israeli Rami Shabbat to come in as 50/50 partner, and picked up the mantle at Koch's.
As the new owners had promised Barry when they took over, very little has changed over the last 11 years. Standing behind the counter one afternoon, Haim, 55, took breaks from ringing up customers to talk about how fate landed him there, why his sandwiches are a better value than Wawa, and why you should always ask a taxi driver if you want to find the best deli in town.
How did you end up in Philadelphia?
I am from Israel, but I married an American girl from Philly when I was 28. We came here to have a small wedding for her family. I had never wanted to visit the U.S. before - I had been to England, France, Italy, all those countries - but once I came here I was amazed. We were only in America three weeks, but when I went back home, I my whole point of view had changed. So I sold the food-distribution business I had just started, and moved here
And opened a deli?
First I started working at Jack & Jill. I was their top salesman. Then I decided to open my own lunch truck, and grew it into four lunch trucks. Then, in 1998, I bought the City Line Deli at City Line and Haverford Avenues. I was actually around two weeks from selling it when Barry [Koch] called me and asked if I knew anybody to run this place. I told him, "Yes, I will run the place for you." It was almost like it was meant to be. We have a Jewish word for it: "bashert."
Did you learn about the history of this place?
Barry stayed with us for three months, on whatever days he could take off, and gave us lots of history lessons, telling us about his parents and his brothers. And also teaching us exactly how they made the sandwiches. We didn't change a thing. Everything you see is all like it was when they started. We were thinking it might be nice to add some seating, but we asked the customers and everybody said "No!" Not one person wanted it.
You added some new cheeses, though?
Well, yes, we made a few small additions and changes, all for the convenience of the customer. We added more cheeses, and a credit card machine, and plastic bags - they only had paper and when people ordered a dozen sandwiches they could hardly walk out without dropping them. Also we added a veggie steak and a veggie burger, for people who don't eat meat, and a lettuce wrap for the gluten-free. Because times change.
And you're on GrubHub now, too?
Again, times change. Because if you don't go online, the customers are going to order from somewhere else. Adding delivery is definitely good for business.
What's the most popular sandwich?
The Restaurant School [Double Decker]. It has corned beef, turkey, brisket, cheese and coleslaw. The pastrami Reuben is also a big seller. Cheesesteaks, too. We have 19 kinds of meat here, altogether. Some of them are made here, like the corned beef. And all of them we slice thin. The way they do it in New York, with the thick cuts, it doesn't taste as good. Our sandwiches are thick but our meats are thin.
Is it true someone once broke their jaw eating one of your sandwiches?
Dislocated, yes. He was a regular customer, around 23 years old. One day he came in with his jaw all bandaged up. I said, "Dude, what happened? You were in an accident?" He said, "No, it was your sandwich!" My heard went down to my shoes; I thought he was going to sue us. But he didn't. He said, "I'm not mad at you! I did it to myself."
Giant sandwiches are a Jewish deli tradition, right?
Yes, but if you go to other places in Philly they'll charge you $30. If you go to Katz's in New York, they'll charge you $45. And Wawa is a dirty word in here. If you get a sandwich there, you won't be able to see the meat. I was in LBI last August, and we went clubbing until 5 o'clock in the morning, and Wawa was the only thing open. So I got a sandwich and ordered "extra meat," but even but even with that it didn't come to a quarter of what we do. And it cost more, too.
Our idea is to give you every penny's worth. To make the customer happy. The business is the customers, and the customers are the business.
Any famous people that are customers
Well, every person is special. But the sheriff of Philadelphia comes here around twice a week, like a lot of police officers. If you want to know where's a good place, just look where the police officers and taxi drivers go. You know why? Because they know the whole city, back and forth.
Ever think about expanding?
We have lots of offers, lots of offers. But it's like, I have one good wife. Why would I have two wives? You might think you would make more money, but really it's just more headache.
Ten years from now, will this place still be here?
Knock on wood, God forbid, why shouldn't it be? If I could read the future.... But I certainly hope so. This is my baby.
4309 Locust St., 215-222-8662
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily