‘I Was Always a Deli Shlepper": Owner Bette Dworkin On Why She Had To Bring Kaufman’s Deli Back

The new Kaufman's, Skokie.
The new Kaufman’s, Skokie. Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

It’s been a tough month for delis. Ashkenaz in Chicago’s Gold Coast closed; so did Stage Deli in New York. Yet there was a piece of good news, too, when Kaufman’s Delicatessen & Bakery in Skokie reopened in early November after a fire almost exactly a year earlier. Bette Dworkin, whose father bought the deli in the 1980s from Maury Kaufman, came close to giving up more than once in the process of buying and completely rebuilding the business, which they had operated in rented space for 25 years. But deli is in her blood, going back to her great-grandfather, a baker in Russia who opened Imperial Bakery at 1011 N. Damen in Chicago in the early 20th century. And with her mom, Judy, she persevered to bring her nearly 60-year-old classic deli back for another generation. We spoke with Dworkin about the struggle to keep this iconic Skokie business going and its rebirth in new, snazzier digs on Dempster in Skokie.

So tell us about the fire.

It was a burner that malfunctioned. The fire was relatively small, and the guy who was working tried to knock it down, like he was supposed to do. But because the smoke got into the HVAC system, when the fire department got here they saw it full of smoke, and they thought gas ovens, flour, we should get reinforcements. I think they had three fire companies here. There was lots of smoke and water damage, but the fire itself only damaged one piece.

We called in the restoration company but once we started that, the Village of Skokie said, any grandfathering is over. So we had to look at redoing everything to bring it from the 1960s to a 2013 modern foodservice facility— electrical, mechanical, plumbing, we had to have an ADA bathroom with its own hallway, handsinks everywhere.

And we didn’t own the building, and the woman who did said, I can’t do all that, you have to do it. And it was beyond what we could do as renters. So once I looked at other properties, I calmed down. And our lease was almost up anyway, so we went to the owner of the property and said, look, we have to either own it ourselves or we have to move. And in August, we bought it.

Where did you look?

We looked at another location in Skokie [the former Barnum & Bagel’s] and one just over the bridge in Morton Grove. But there were some insurance ramifications to moving. And you can’t quantify the value of having a business that’s been in one place for 50 years. We’ve known businesses that moved across the street and lost customers, because people couldn’t find them. So Mom and I talked about how we could stay and design a beautiful new store.

After we reopened, there was a woman who came in— an old customer, and her mother was an old customer, when the mom passed away we had catered her shiva. And for some reason she brought in her mother’s check register from the 80s, and she was showing my cousin all the checks she’d written to Kaufman’s— this was back when we took checks!

And my cousin was looking at it, and it occurred to her that there were all these checks to businesses that were famous once that don’t exist any more— Marshall Field’s and Wieboldt’s and Stop and Shop and so on.

All these independent Chicago businesses were gone, except us. It’s all chains now. That’s why we had to reopen.

Do you think the business changed in the process? Because we do. It’s friendlier now. We were always a little intimidated, frankly, in the old place, like if we get something wrong, we’re going to be sent back to the end of the numbers by the deli guy.

(Laughs) Well, back in the day it was perfectly acceptable for the deli man to yell at you. We’ve heard that from some customers since we’ve reopened, some complain that the deli man’s too rude, some complain that he’s not rude enough.

We’ve changed some things. We expanded the deli case, we saved the old case and added a new one so we can have one dedicated to fish. The bakery’s larger, and we’ve added seating— there are 14 seats at the sandwich bar, and four tables, though that will probably increase. We have self-serve hot soups, which we never had before. Oh, and don’t forget our lovely decked-out ADA-compliant bathrooms.

We have a central checkout now, so you don’t end up doing the “Kaufman’s shuffle.” [In the old Kaufman’s, there were separate checkouts for bakery and deli.] The store is designed so one person can wait on you, from deli to bakery. A lot of customers are having trouble with that. 50 years of habit.

It was a challenge not to make it too slick. That’s why we have the wood flooring, and the straight cases instead of the European kind that are kind of curved. This is what people are used to in a deli. There’s more stainless steel now, which is a sanitation thing. I have to put in a music system, that’s one thing that fell off the list. But the last two Sundays we’ve had live music— a bluegrass band that also plays Jewish music.

Have you added anything to the menu?

We added a series of sandwiches as a thank you to some of people who helped us. Our new banker got a sandwich named for him, a trustee with the Village who was phenomenally helpful, a friend in the insurance business who helped guide me through that and her husband who helped me with the computer business— it’s the people who kept me sane, basically, they got sandwiches named for them which they created themselves.

But the important things haven’t changed. We have the same suppliers, the same bakers, the same product.

How did you manage to keep your staff?

Well, some of the bakers went to work for our wholesale business. The cooks and countermen got jobs elsewhere, but as soon as we reopened, they all came back.

We read that you came back to the deli after a career working for Club Med—

Yeah, my previous life. But I came back. I was always a deli girl, a deli shlepper, I guess.

I joined the company 24 years ago in our wholesale business. The wholesale business was kind of a delayed casualty of 9/11— our biggest accounts were United Airlines and Wyndham Hotels. We were about to make a big move into a new facility. That would have killed us then. So we shrunk it down to baking in a part of our kitchen here. It’s a very limited business now.

But we were an artisan bakery before artisan was a buzzword. I consider the deli to be trying to keep traditions alive.

Do you feel like you’re attracting the next generation of deli customers?

I do. Young parents come in now and bring their kids in and say “Grandpa used to bring me in.” You know what our single biggest seller is? The single biggest item?

Corned beef?

Sprinkle cookies. Because that’s your memory of coming here as a child. So much of what we do, we’re competing with memories.

We do bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs for the younger generation. Food patterns change, some things go out of style. We don’t sell herring like we used to, or kasha varnishkes. Or Polish fish [fish in tomato sauce], that used to be a big one and I don’t know how long since we made that.

But other things rotate back in— we saw a boom in corned beef and pastrami when the Atkins craze hit. There’s a shift to moderation, I think— people say, it’s okay to have this as long as I’m not having it three times a week. And you know, with the economy the way it is, and the news, people want comfort food.

We’re just happy people are coming back. We were really scared before we opened. And we’ve had tremendous support from the community for coming back. We get flowers from old customers, we get hugs and kisses. We’re happy to see everybody.

‘I Was Always a Deli Shlepper": Owner Bette Dworkin On Why She Had To Bring