Rush hour at the deli

There was just no telling what was going to happen, business-wise at the deli. But I recollect that if we didn’t get the business between 11 and 2, it was a “Slow Day”.

Actually, I could be wrong. Every once in a while, Dad would express surprise at how there would be a “late rush”, when customers would pour in, in the afternoon. To my dad, there was no rhyme or reason. We’d be sitting there at the deli, lamenting a slow morning and lunch, when only 7-10 customers had come in. All of a sudden the phone would ring with an order for eight Mushroom Cheesesteaks (usually none of the sandwiches were the same, so cooking them could be tedious, which I’ll explain some other time). Then we’d have a bunch of friends from our church come pouring in. Mormons, sometimes, have large families and those families brought good business into the Philadelphia Deli.

It was weird, though. I remember some days after lunch, Dad would pop open the till and start counting. We’d wait for the verdict and then he’d announce that it had been either a good day, or a slow one. Some days there was just no telling as to what would constitute a good day or a slow one.

Some days I was a better worker than other days. On the days that I was “on”, I’d make sure that when a customer was ordering, I wrote clear notes and (this was vital, I learned) whether or not an order was for “here” or to “go”.

Here’s an example of what an order for a cheesesteak with hot and sweet peppers and pickles looked like):

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If I was really on the ball, I’d include whether or not this was a call in, or not. Otherwise, sometimes a customer would be standing in the dining room, while a finished sandwich warmed on top of the oven. I made this mistake too many times. This writing is representative of what you’d find on the yellow notepad when a guy named Jeff wanted a cheesesteak with everything (hot/sweet peppers, pickles and tomato), to go.

As with many things in a business that last for almost 20 years, iterations of products develop. In the earlier days of the deli “everything” on a cheesesteak included tomatoes. But they became rather expensive and didn’t seem to affect whether or not a cheesesteak would sell. So they were dropped from the recipe. My memory is fuzzy on this one, but I’m pretty sure that at the beginning we used three slices of American cheese. But for the vast majority of the deli’s life, we used two. I suppose this is a tangent, because the point that I’m trying to get across is that the rush hour was sometimes complicated for me.

Now that I think about it, I think the reason that I tried to write clearly and as much details as possible, is because it was very easy for me to get confused on orders. I was never able to remember a customer’s name, whether the order was to go, or (heaven forbid if this wasn’t written down) if they did not want hot peppers on their turkey hoagie. The flipside of this is that Dad and Mom had gotten pretty good at remembering this kind of stuff. Usually Dad wrote orders down, but sometimes if it was a little more quiet, he wouldn’t write anything at all. This was one time when the phrase “all on the same page” is apt. We had different methods of dealing with orders, customers, etc. This is not to say that there wasn’t a base method for what we did, but we each would deviate in small ways from The Method. For instance, Mom might be a little more generous with how much ham she weighed out for a customer. Mom’s scale and Dad’s scale saw gravitation slightly differently.

When things were absolutely “slammed”, Dad was on the grill. He was very good at handling many sandwiches at a time. Coordinating an order that included a couple of cheesesteaks and a few cold sandwiches, during the rush, required some amount of thought. You didn’t want to have a cheesesteak sitting for 10 minutes while a BLT was being assembled. Hot sandwiches needed to stay hot. Sometimes it made sense to cook sandwiches in the wrong order. For instance, if we new that one sandwich would take longer to make than another, we might start the second order first. But Dad had a very good feel for what needed to be done and at what time, so I knew that if I just did was Dad asked, usually things would work out alright.

Mom handled the cold side, as well as the nurturing of the customer. Mom took time to talk and chat and I believe that she added an element to the deli’s ambiance, that the customers took to. The fact is, everyone enjoyed chatting with Mom and Dad (even if it was a bit difficult for Dad to hear above the noise of the kitchen).

A busy rush hour could go one of two ways. It was either fun and we were on our game, or it was stressful and tensions could be high. The Nelson family is made up of strong-willed, opinionated personalities, loving as we may be. The deli brought out all of our personalities. At our worst, we could bicker about how a sandwich got messed up, in front of the customer.  This didn’t happen too often, but it illustrates that we did not hide from the public that this was a family business.

Sometimes one of us kids would run sandwiches to nearby businesses. We’d run food across a busy Park Avenue (no time to use crosswalks or wait for lights) to Railroad Junction (which usually tipped us!), to a bike shop on Main, or somewhere else. When we were older, sometimes the Nelson kids would actually drive an order somewhere, but this was pretty rare.

A moment ago I referred to a sandwich that was made incorrectly. These creations were called a “mistake”. Dad would point to an out-of-place sandwich in a basket and ask, “What is that?”, to which someone would respond, “It’s a mistake”. The mistake was either: 1) Quickly given to another gracious customer. 2) Consumed by one of us. 3) Discarded after no one would eat it.)

Most of the time, great memories were made during rush hour. If Mom and Dad had the grill and cold station handled, the rest of us would work to stock depleted stations, wash more dishes, bus tables, or whatever else needed to be done. But the banter that occurred during these rushes sharpened one’s wit. You had to be fast to cook, fast to explain an order and fast to diffuse some of the tension that naturally built up over a couple of hours of working over a hot grill. But there was joking around. There was goofiness. Some of the kids, who were much braver than I was, even teased Dad and joked around a bit during rush hour. I preferred to take my chances when things were a little more calm.

When the rush hour died down, if it had been particularly slammed, Dad might mention that it had been a “barnburner”. If had the sense that the rush was over, we’d make our own sandwiches, or for each other, and go sit down to eat. Sometimes Dad would tell us to go sit down and he’d make us lunch.

Dad’s cheesesteaks always tasted better than mine did…to me, at least.

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