But through three different ownerships, Benji's Deli still going strong, offering an old-school vibe, friendly conversation and a mouth-watering reuben.
Founded in 1963 by Werner "Benji" Benjamin, the Shorewood deli was sold in the mid 1980s to a lawyer, a judge and an accountant – who opened a second Benji's Deli in Fox Point. Mike Price, a Benji's employee of 15 years, bought both delis in 2006 with his younger brother Chris. Benji, now 86, still comes in to visit every day.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, Benji's has slightly strayed from its roots as a Jewish deli that once featured old-world favorites like kishka, knish and gefilte fish. The deli still features matzah balls, pickled tongue and lox plates, but some of the old dinner items have been phased out.
"Nobody really comes in to get a roast tongue dinner or liver and onions," said co-owner Mike Price. "We used to do a lamb, short rib and a lot of eastern European cuisine, but not anymore."
With 33 years at Benji's, waitress Sue Abendroth has watched the deli shift in design and demographics over the years. She said some of the Jewish customers now go to the Fox Point location, while the Shorewood location gets a more diverse crowd of college professors, students and young families.
"Back then it was kishka, kugel and gefilte fish," Abendroth recalled. "On the High Holidays, we would have orders for gefilte fish and potato pancakes strung up for days and days."
These days Benji's has a New York-style deli feel, and is best known for its reuben and corned beef sandwiches. The brisket melt and half-pound Hear-O Israel sandwich have also boomed in popularity since they were featured on the Travel Channel's Man vs. Food show two years ago.
One customer told Abendroth that he came to Benji's after seeing the Man vs. Food episode in Colombia. The other day she served a couple Hear-O of Israel sandwiches to Rhode Island motorcyclists.
"I've waited on people from coast to coast," she said. "It's exciting for new people to discover us and for our old friends to come back and see us. People that grew up in the area and moved away are so excited to come back and see we're still here."
They've also had a number of celebrities come in through the doors over the years, including Jackie Mason, Dan Marino and Barbara Billingsley.
Having served three different generations, Abendroth said Benji’s has a neighborhood vibe and a customer loyalty that is hard to come by in the competitive restaurant industry.
“It's like Cheers,” she said. “Sometimes this lunch counter will be full of people who all know each other’s names.”
After 22 years at the deli, Price said the deli has a vibe that is all its own.
"Sometimes when you come in here on a Saturday morning it's hard to hear yourself," he said. "I like that, because that's how people meet each other. People come here and see other people they know. It's a communal thing."