How to Save Chicago’s Oldest Deli From Coronavirus Closure

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the United States, the restaurant industry has taken a major hit. As of July 14, the Chicago Eater reported 70 permanent coronavirus-related restaurant closures in and around the city.

Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen, a pillar of Chicago for over 75 years, took to social media on Tuesday to alert customers that they too, were struggling. Regulars and newcomers alike heeded the restaurant’s call for support, lining up for hours on Wednesday and Thursday to show their solidarity (and curb that corn beef craving). But, while humbled and grateful for the outpouring of support, Manny’s knows they are far from in the clear.

“Of course, a one-day bump in sales is not enough to sustain a restaurant through a crisis with no clear end in sight,” Dan Raskin, Manny’s fourth generation owner, told Block Club Chicago. “No restaurant is safe from financial trouble during the pandemic.”

Two years ago, in a pre-coronavirus Chicago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dan Raskin for a story I was writing while at Northwestern University. My dad, who had spent countless lunch breaks at Manny’s in his late 20s, even took the day off of work to accompany me (whether it was for quality time, or a sandwich, I’ll never know.) We spent the morning observing folks enter the deli, order lunch without a glance at the menu and retire to their respective tables: a routine assumably mastered by years of practice.

When I saw Manny’s plea for support this week, I felt compelled to share the story I wrote in 2018. My hope is that it helps to emphasize the necessity of preserving this cornerstone of Chicago history:

Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen – Chicago’s Spot For Pastrami With A Side of Politics

It’s lunchtime, 11 a.m. on a Wednesday in early April. Chicago pulses with the rush of a metropolitan workday.

Just south of downtown, on an unassuming corner of Jefferson and Grenshaw, time moves a bit slower and history, quite literally, lines the walls. Generous bites of turkey legs (Wednesday’s special) are taken between hearty laughs and conversation amongst old friends. On most tables, the Chicago Tribune occupies prime real estate next to ceramic mugs filled to the brim with piping hot, black coffee.

Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen, 2018. Photo courtesy of Madison Muller.

At Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen, the Raskin family has been filling the hearts, and stomachs, of Chicagoans for over 75 years. The restaurant has served the Raskin’s classic Jewish deli food to countless crooks, cops and commissioners that have called Chicago home. Today, the family’s legacy lives on through owner-operator and fourth generation Raskin, Dan, along with his parents, Ken and Patti.

“Manny’s has been around for so long, it just sort of turned into a meeting place for people,” Dan Raskin explains. “In the early 90s it was the hangout for politicians during their campaigns. Because of the diversity of our customers, they could talk and shake hands with all types of people.”

And, really, nothing brings Chicagoans together quite like good food. Customers pile into the cafeteria-style queue for thickly-stacked corned beef and pastrami on rye, better-than-your-Grandma’s matzo ball soup and golden-brown potato latkes.

Manny’s corned beef sandwich and matzo ball soup, 2018. Photo courtesy of Madison Muller.

Dan Raskin admits that while they do the classics well, it is the hot entrees that set Manny’s apart from any other deli or restaurant.

“They’re what the regulars come and get. The beef stew, the short rib – no one makes old-fashioned comfort food like we do anymore,” says Raskin. His personal favorite? The Oxtail stew.

The iconic black and white checkered floors are reminiscent of the restaurant’s earlier days, floors that have now seen four generations of Raskins walk across them. But, it is no longer just the Raskins that consider Manny’s a family affair.

“It’s almost crazy the amount of people who tell me the same story,” explains Raskin. “It’s always: ‘my grandfather brought me here, and then I came here with my dad and now I’m bringing my children here.’”

Despite Manny’s long-standing reputation as a Chicago institution, running a deli in 2018 comes with its own set of challenges. Challenges that have led to the disappearance of many delis across big cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

Dan Raskin explains, “The raw price of corned beef and the raw price of a steak, is maybe a two to three-dollar difference. A steakhouse is getting $50 for a dish, and I can charge $15.”

Operation costs, coupled with high real estate prices and the emergence of grocery store delis, make places like Manny’s hard to come by today.

But, seemingly undeterred, Dan Raskin instead talks of plans for the future. Noting that customers will not see a decline in quality (or quantity) of corned beef on their sandwiches any time soon.

“I want to keep this place open for as long as possible,” Raskin shares. “Not just for my family, but for our customers and their families, as well.”

Manny’s is currently open 9:30 a.m.- 8 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday and 9:30 a.m.- 3:30 p.m. Sundays and Mondays. They also deliver to the North Shore.

Read more about their history here.

Vote for Manny’s Deli in the Dining category of Better’s Best of 2020.

More from Better:

Madison Muller is the Assistant Digital Editor at Better. A recent graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, she approaches our contemporary media environment with compassion and candor. She is interested in writing about the intersectionality of social justice issues in marginalized communities and environmentalism. Madison proudly supports Action Now, a community organization that empowers and uplifts residents on Chicago’s West Side.

She also encourages reading and supporting The Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.

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