Kaufman’s Deli: Rising from the Ashes, A Fresh Start

It’s been almost a year since the fire.

That’s a year devoid of the North Shore’s best corned beef, crusty rye bread and uber-knishes; an eternity to the loyal customers and hungry stomachs raised on deli food.

It’s been a long road, too, for Kaufman’s long-time owners, Bette Dworkin and her mother, Judy. When the call came in the early morning of November 6, 2011, there wasn’t much to do but watch and wait as the Skokie Fire Department did their work.

The fire started with a faulty burner in the back corner of the kitchen. The fire itself was relatively small, but the smoke damage was extensive. They had no idea at the time just how long it would take until they were back up and running. Suddenly, they were confronted with zoning and compliance issues; the damage from the fire meant the building’s “quirks” were no longer grandfathered under the Village of Skokie’s code.

What Took So Long?

The Dworkins bought the deli from original owner Morrie Kaufman in 1984, but they never owned the building. The fire became the catalyst for them to buy it, since the previous owner wasn’t particularly interested in making the upgrades that the Village insisted on, which were over and above the insurance funds. So it wasn’t until they closed on the building May 10 that they were able to begin the structural work.

I got an early sneak peek of the “new” Kaufman’s from Bette Dworkin. Full confession: I’ve been a loyal customer since moving to the North Shore 24 years ago, but I went there for the food, not the atmosphere. It was always kind of dark and dingy, and it was a pain to have to wait in the long line first at the deli, then separately for the bakery.

The New, Improved Kaufman’s

Not anymore! The build-out is modern, clean and welcoming; the room is filled with light and fanciful touches. Most importantly, it’s user-friendly, with plenty of seating to enjoy your sandwich rather than stuffing your face in the car (yes, I speak from experience). And for the first time, there are bathrooms for customer use, and as a plus, they’re kind of fabulous.

There are changes behind the counter, too. The kitchens have been updated and expanded, and you’ll notice that they’ve increased their offerings of single-serving dinners like short ribs and meat loaf, and added daily self-serve soups. The bakery and deli counter are side by side rather than separated by walls, and they’ve hired many new counter people, some with extensive culinary training.

The Dworkins have made a concerted effort to keep prices the same on their “bread and butter” items, like challah, bagels, rye bread, lox and that famous corned beef. Yes, some prices have gone up, but what else can you expect a year later, especially when they hadn’t raised prices in quite awhile before the fire?

They’ve extended their legendary sandwich menu with shout-outs to people who helped on the road back to the early November opening, including the Fire Dept., their banker, and even the Skokie Village Trustees. And they’re already booking parties and trays for later in the fall.

A Fresh Start

“We are so excited to open, and I am so exhausted.” shares Bette. “It’s amazing to my mother and me how many people have kept calling. It made us realize how much a part of the community this business is. It’s been heart warming. We hope that people think it was worth the wait!”

The Dworkins are a little nervous. This is not the Kaufman’s that many people grew used to over the decades. But I can tell you; it’s only the exterior that’s changed. The warmth of the Dworkins and their care and concern for their employees and customers remains the same. And the food?  It’s everything you remember and more. Welcome back!