Jack's Deli, a Northeast Philadelphia landmark, to close

Brothers Alan (left) and Eddie Mutchnick are closing Jack's Deli, 8502 Bustleton Ave., after 51 years.

Jack's Deli, which provided smoked fish, corned beef, and midnight feasts of waffles and ice cream to generations of Northeast Philadelphians, will close soon as the business moves exclusively to corporate catering in a new location.

The restaurant side's last day will be June 4, and its deli will close about a week later, said Eddie Mutchnick, who with his brother Alan runs the business founded by their father, Jack, in 1953 in Mount Airy; that store was sold in 1971.

The deli-restaurant opened at Bustleton Avenue and Tustin Street in 1966.  

Eddie Mutchnick, 75, who started in the business at age 12 bagging potatoes, will move Jack's off-premises catering business into the Buck Hotel in Feasterville. It will offer delivery only.

Alan Mutchnick, 68, said he plans to retire to spend more time with his wife of 44 years, Pam, and the rest of his family. "I am comfortable in my heart and in my head with my decision," he said. "I've given up a lot in 50 years." None of the Mutchnicks' five children wants to take over.

"This is not only my business, but this is like my hobby," Eddie Mutchnick said, settled into a chair in a mirror-lined, pastel dining room whose decor screams 1995. "Everybody says, 'You're retiring. You must have a million hobbies.' Well, this is what I do. My customers are my family. That's why they're all crying here. It's a very emotional time and it will be an emotional time."

Jack's walk-in business had been fading for a decade, the brothers said, citing changing demographics in its Bell's Corner neighborhood.

Jack's was one of the busiest of the dozens of Jewish delis that in the 1960s and 1970s were sprinkled along Castor and Bustleton Avenues like so many caraway seeds. Few remain.

Jack's and other delis thrived early on by selling groceries because supermarkets weren't allowed to be open on Sundays. As the blue laws were relaxed, the delis converted floor space to restaurant seating. Jack's added a second dining room in 1981. 

In its heyday, Jack's had long lines late into the night, especially on weekends after the movies. Its soda fountain was as busy as the sandwich board. Mornings brought throngs of customers to buy fish and deli meats.

About seven years ago, the Mutchnicks felt forced to close before dinner. They ramped up their catering business to pick up the slack. They tried but could not buy the building, prompting a decision about renewing the lease.

When the catering opportunity at the Buck came up, the Mutchnicks decided to make the move - Eddie to keep working and Alan, in his words, to "enjoy the number of healthy years I have left, which I hope is a lot, to enjoy my wife, children, and grandchildren."

Jack's employed thousands of young people over the years as waitresses, busers, and fountain workers. "They're all doctors, lawyers, surgeons now," Eddie Mutchnick said. "I used to have an ad on Northeast High School's and Washington High School's bulletin boards, looking for help, and I would have a list of 25, 30 busboys who wanted to work here because they knew they would make a lot of money."

Jack's once ran a staff of 80. Now there are about 30. Eddie Mutchnick said he would take six with him to his new catering operation about 15 minutes away.

The Jewish deli itself is not dying, said Russ Cowan, the lifelong deli man who owns Famous 4th Street in Queen Village. Today's successful delis are in more affluent neighborhoods, such as Center City, Cherry Hill, Montgomeryville, and Huntingdon Valley, drawing a cross-section of local clientele.

Profits are typically slim because of high food costs. "We're not selling $18 martinis," Cowan said. "Somebody goes into a steak house and spends $50 on a steak. In their mind, a corned beef sandwich should be $10" - not $18.50.

Delis also have strong competition from convenience stores that are "cutting into the demand with mediocre but inexpensive product," said Ron Gorodesky, a restaurant consultant who as a teenager in the 1970s worked for two long-shuttered Barson's Delis in the Northeast.

After Jack's restaurant shuts down and the last of the deli items are gone, Eddie Mutchnick said, he'll have one important asset. Tapping on the Jack's logo monogrammed on his polo shirt, he asked, "You know why I'm doing this? The name. My father's. Which has got to be a nice percentage of why I'm doing this. That, and I feel good."