We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
The slicers behind the counter at Famous 4th Street Delicatessen whirl their way through an astonishing quantity of pastrami and corned beef. A conservative guess would rank the Queen Village storefront as the biggest pastrami and corned beef vendor in the city; a more likely estimation is that the shop sells more than all other Philadelphia stores combined.
Whether layered into gigantic towers that threaten to topple off their plates or wrapped in wax paper and slid across the counter, every last bit of that cured or pickled beef is made by Famous 4th proprietor Russ Cowan.
He’s not the original owner of the landmark institution, which has held down the corner of Fourth and Bainbridge since 1923, but Cowan has plenty of cred. A native Brooklynite, he’s descended from three generations of Jewish delicatessen owners, and has opened (and subsequently sold) more than 20 delis and bagelries of his own.
In 2005, he bought Famous 4th from David Auspitz, a 30-year deli man whose Hungarian immigrant father had run the place since 1933. (Auspitz still operates the similarly named — but now separate — Famous 4th Street Cookie Co.)
After taking over, Cowan gave the building a top-to-bottom renovation, overhauled the menu and extended the restaurant’s hours into the evening. The result was a success — business has nearly quadrupled in the last nine years — and despite Cowan’s previous habit of flipping stores soon after rehabbing them, he’s still happily ensconced in this one.
On a recent weekday afternoon, he took a break from carving lox and supervising bowls of chicken noodle soup to chat over the phone. During an hour-long conversation, we discussed why he serves the most expensive pastrami sandwich in Philly, why he never hires chefs, and what happened that time President Obama stopped by.
How did you end up buying Famous 4th Street?
It was really just a fluke. It was the summer of 2004, and a Philadelphia developer named Jack Blumenfeld was eating in my deli in Ocean City [Kibitz Down the Shore]. Out of the clear blue, he says, “Russ, you should buy this place.” I had never given it much thought, but he asked me to at least come to a meeting, so I said sure. I met the owner — David Auspitz — and he and I kinda hit it off. We put a deal together and it happened pretty quickly.
Do you know why he wanted to sell?
Honestly, I just don’t think he wanted to do it anymore — he’d been at it a long time. (He still eats here, by the way, he lives right down the block.) But it’s funny you ask that, because for years I made a living building and selling stores, and every time I sold, someone would say, “Why are you selling?” Well, because that’s what I do! I build stores and I sell stores.
You’ve had this place for nearly a decade; are you planning to sell it?
I tried to, actually, around eight years ago. But I’m 59 now, so you know... I like to say, I don’t know how many more I have in me.
And it’s interesting, this is a very specific product. Every day now you see a chef, or investors with chefs, opening a new place, but nobody touches the Jewish delicatessen business. It’s a very niche product; it’s the hard end of the food business.
I mean, I don’t sell $17 martinis. I sell corned beef and smoked fish. The average check here isn’t $75 — it’s closer to $20.
But you’ve figured out how to make the numbers work.
Yes. My family’s always had Jewish delicatessens, going back to my great-grandparents, and I’ve been in all sides of the business. I used to cross the country building stores for Bagel Nosh, which was really the first bagel franchise. I had my own bagel shop. I had bakeries. I’ve been in delicatessen manufacturing. And for the past 20-plus years I've been building stores and delis around South Jersey and Philly.
What’s the secret to a successful Jewish deli, then?
I always say there are three things you have to pay attention to in order to make it work: the food, the service and the cleanliness. Most important is to give people a good deal — it’s all about perceived value.
I have the most expensive pastrami sandwich in Philadelphia, but I also sell more pastrami than anywhere in Philadelphia. Same with corned beef. Because people look at my sandwiches and say, “Wow! I really like what I’m eating, plus I get a lot for my money.” I have a lot of repeat customers.
Your pastries are also huge.
It’s all about that “wow.” Plus, I wanted to give people something they couldn’t get elsewhere, something unique. We bake all that here: the cakes, the hamentashen, the rugelach, the turnovers.
What about the bagels; do you make those here?
If I had the space, I definitely be making my own bagels. But we only have a little more than 2,000 square feet. What I do instead is bring bagels from Long Island, but when I get them, they’re par-baked. We finish them in the oven throughout the day, so instead of something that was delivered in the morning — and will start to go stale after six hours — our bagels are always fresh.
Years ago, I used to make my own rye bread, too. But I don't have that room here to do that. You need specific ovens, and the kettle and the proofers... If I had another building, I'd do it.
Where do you get the rye bread?
I bring it from Atlantic CIty, Ginsburg Bakery. I found them when I had my store in Ocean City.
Do you have a chef?
No. I’m the only chef here. I’m a food guy as well as a business guy. I’ve never hired a chef in my life. I don’t hire people that know anything. I teach everybody how I want things.
In 2009, you opened a second Famous 4th Street Delicatessen in Rittenhouse. What led to that?
I was just in the mood to open another store! So I said to myself, maybe I can do something close. That way I could use my staff in both stores, not try to run a long distance operation.
How did you choose that exact spot [at 38 S.19th St.]?
I was very specific about where I wanted to be if I was going into that neighborhood: 18th or 19th Street between Walnut and Market. Because I needed that blend of business and residential customers. On Fourth Street, we’re a destination. But around 19th Street, there’s not that much of a tourist crowd.
You know, 15 years ago, when I had my stores in Center City, I’d always close on the weekends. But now that there’s so many people actually living in the city, I do more business on weekends than I do on weekdays!
The Queen Village location is also known as a gathering place for politicians, right?
Oh, yes. This place has hosted an Election Day party for the past 30 years. I knew it was a tradition, so decided to keep it running. All the local politicians come and eat lunch here. We had a pretty good turnout this year. The mayor was here, people from city council, state representatives, state senators and also all the people that are trying to run for mayor next time. It was fun.
You also hosted President Obama once?
Yup, someone I know that’s politically connected put the word out that it would be a good stop, and so Obama visited a few days before Election Day in 2010.
It was pretty crazy. The Secret Service was in here the whole week before, checking everything out.
Do you remember what the President ordered?
He had a corned beef Reuben with potato pancakes. I made it myself.
It was funny. Before they ate, this guy came over to me and introduced himself by saying, “I’m White House food service.” He was carrying a large attaché case, so at first I thought he was carrying the lunch with him. But then he explained: “Whatever the President orders, I have to watch you make it.”
After he watched me make the sandwich for Obama, he said, “Can I get one of those, too?”
And before they left, they ordered a ton of food to take with them on the plane, to feed the staff and the media. It was great.
Famous 4th Street Delicatessen
700 S. Fourth St., 215-922-3274
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily