Protzel's Delicatessen is a St. Louis landmark
It’s not easy to get your name on the menu at Protzel’s Delicatessen. Many have tried, few have succeeded. Since the deli opened in 1954 under the ownership of Bob and Evelyn Protzel, the list of offerings has remained almost exactly the same. “The only thing that has really changed on the menu is that specialty sandwiches have gotten added,” explained Max Protzel, grandson of the original owners and co-owner alongside his sister, Erica Kliethermes. “What’s fun about that is that all of the specialty sandwiches are named after some customers of the deli, so there’s meaning behind it.” In fact, nearly all of the special sandwiches are named for customers who have earned their place among the classics, and Protzel loves telling their stories.
He recalls a Washington University student named Adam Starkman who came in frequently, ordering a brisket and hard salami sandwich with deli mustard – something that wasn’t on the menu. One day, Starkman jokingly asked Protzel if he could just put the sandwich on the menu, and Protzel shocked him by saying yes. “Are you kidding?” Starkman asked. “No, it’s fine,” Protzel replied. When Starkman had tried doing that previously, at many delis in New York City, “they completely dismissed it and thought he was nuts for doing it.” Soon after, he returned with 30 of his friends to show off the Stark Diez, his namesake item. “The guys even brought their parents in,” Protzel said. “It was the greatest marketing tool I ever had, and it didn’t cost me a dime.”
Generally, if a customer orders an original sandwich often enough, Protzel will write it down on a piece of cardstock and tape it up on the deli case; if it starts to stick with other diners, it might become part of the permanent menu. “The Mrs. Gladney Special comes from back when my grandparents were still alive,” Protzel said of a sandwich featuring peppered beef, salami, Swiss cheese and Dijon mustard, served on Jewish rye or a Kaiser roll. “She came in every Saturday and ordered that sandwich for the caretakers in her house,” he said. “A few months ago, her son and grandson came in. They were shocked it was still on the menu.”
Protzel’s menu stands as a monument to a dedicated customer base that has, in some cases, been dining there since the beginning. “A lot of these customers have been coming in forever. I still have a lot of customers who came in as kids, and my grandparents waited on them and their grandparents,” Protzel said. “The majority of people I talk to and get to know are people who have been coming in for 50 years or more.”
At the center of it all is the food, which is made almost entirely in-house. It’s not really different from any other deli; you can get bagels with lox and cream cheese, tuna salad, pastrami and corned beef. They have tongue, chopped liver and egg salad. People love the Reuben sandwich, which you can get at basically any restaurant with the word “deli” in its name. What makes Protzel’s truly special, as the menu shows, is that if you eat there often enough, you become part of it.
7608 Wydown Blvd., Clayton, 314.721.4445, protzelsdeli.com
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