In the mid-morning buzz of the Short Hills Deli, as senior citizens chatted over the breakfast special and businessmen talked stocks while downing eggs, Joyce Hoff and her friends stood out.
With schools, husbands, and synagogue goings-on to be discussed at their weekly date, the Marlton resident and her dozen pals sometimes got a little loud.
"The regulars knew if they didn't want to be bothered by us, they shouldn't sit by us," said Hoff, 53. "The non-regulars would soon learn that was a bad choice for that day."
The group's loyalty was so well-known that when a fire ravaged the Cherry Hill eatery on Jan. 4, at least seven acquaintances called Hoff to pass along the news.
"I would pick up the phone and say, 'Yes, I know it's on fire, and no, I don't know where we're going,' " she said.
After eight months of renovation, the kosher-style deli is scheduled to reopen Oct. 15. Owner Jerry Kaplan said he expected to soon see many of the patrons who kept his staff serving more than 7,000 meals a week.
"At least 50 people a day drive by asking, 'When are you going to open?' " he said. "We're such a landmark, they keep coming and coming."
The Cherry Hill restaurant, on Evesham Road, has attracted a loyal following since its 1997 opening, drawing customers who say they return for the comfortable atmosphere, vast menu, and scene of regulars. In addition to its dine-in crowd, the deli does a brisk business catering for Jewish holidays.
Fire officials found that the three-alarm blaze, ruled accidental, likely began with a discarded cigarette. The deli and adjoining building caught fire Jan. 4, sustaining damage Kaplan estimated at $3 million.
Gert Pastelnick, 81, is looking forward to mid-October so she and husband Max can once again begin most mornings with the deli's breakfast special of eggs, potatoes, fruit, a bagel and coffee.
"There was a camaraderie there," she said. "It was a place you could find out what was going on in Cherry Hill."
One township resident described how her son, now living in San Francisco, would schedule his visits home to include a plate of blintzes at the deli. Another, an elderly woman, said she and a friend would spend each Sunday afternoon at a matinee film - a musical or comedy, nothing with explosions - before sitting for the early-bird special at Short Hills.
As for Marlton resident Marcia Golden, she admits she judges her restaurants by food alone.
"The truth is, I'm a really good cook," she said. "When I go out, I really expect my food to be as good as my own."
Golden, 63, said the Short Hills Deli soups - and the beef cabbage borscht in particular - draw her back.
"It's truly to die for," she said recently. "My mouth is watering while I'm talking to you."
In the three weeks until opening, Kaplan will oversee the kitchen installation and staff training. He's hoping to win back his regulars from the diners and delis they've frequented in recent months.