It’s Election Day here in Pennsylvania and, after a stop at their local polling places, many Philadelphia politicians head to the Famous Fourth Street Deli.
While a quiet deli lunch might sound just right for busy politicians and their staff amid the campaign frenzy, it’s not what they’ll find at Famous.
Anna Savard has been working at the traditional Jewish deli for four years.
“It’s definitely a crazy chaotic environment, but I guess that’s why people enjoy it so much. I mean, you can feel the energy that day,” she said. “It’s a very heightened, upbeat energy.”
From the front counter, Savard has seen a Tuesday service unfold time and time again.
“They just pump out food like crazy on Election Day,” she said.
In the span of just three hours, Famous and its staff accommodate poll workers, the media circus and, of course, a revolving door of politicians.
And it’s not just the pastrami that keeps the tradition going year after year. It’s a chance to shake hands, talk to the press and pose for what has become an expected photo op on the campaign trail through the City of Brotherly Love.
“It’s a fun event. It usually lasts about three hours, and it’s just a great day,” said Famous Fourth Street owner Russ Cowan. “And you never know who’s gonna show up, that’s the best part!”
Cowan and David Auspitz, the former owner of Famous, sat down to chat about the deli’s history and the tradition of politicking over corned beef.
“My father started it with his brothers in 1923, and it’s been going ever since,” said Auspitz. “We’re heading towards 100 years now. [Russ] is fourth generation out of Brooklyn. That’s like wearing general stripes.”
Though, technically, they’re fifth generation now, said Cowan, because his daughter, Emily, is also in the biz.
On Election Day, you’ll find her at the door asking, “Are you eating in or doing a walk through?”
Four decades of politicking and noshing
After a bit of digging, Auspitz came out with a few names still big into the city’s political scene that he linked back to the tradition of Philly pols at the Famous.
“I’m assuming that it started about 1975,” Auspitz said. “Pete Camiel was the head of the Democratic Party here in Philadelphia. He had a tradition [that] his lucky piece was to come here, and he came with three other people. He came with Neil Oxman, he came with Doc Sweitzer, and he came with David Glancey.”
Pete Camiel died in 1991. Oxman and Sweitzer went on to found The Campaign Group, a political ad agency. Glancy now works at the University of Pennsylvania as a government and community affairs liaison.
Camiel had a ritual, Auspitz explained. With a sugar cube between his teeth, he’d drink a glass of Swee-Touch-Nee Tea.
“It was an old Russian tradition,” Auspitz said.
So when people found out that Camiel and the campaign group were at Famous, they started coming, too. And these days … they still come in droves.
“It’s amazing how it’s grown and grown,” said Cowan. “We’re on the second generation of politicians coming in.”
The whole place is reserved beginning at 11:30 a.m., Cowan explained. And little by little, the tables turn as people go back and work the polls.
As for the deli selection, Cowan keeps things traditional, like the menu his family had in Brooklyn dating back to 1905. But people will always have their favorites.
“Lot of cookies, lot of corned beef, lot of pastrami. I can tell you this, we sell more corned beef and pastrami than anybody in Philadelphia. And we actually cure it here, on the premises, which not too many other people do.”
They also do their own baking. The most popular items?
“The black and white cookies,” said Savard, from behind the counter. “The eclairs are a big hit because they’re so huge. We actually have a cheesesteak box that they go in.”
While take-out orders and the stream of political elite roll in, Cowan and his daughter will be watching the door.
“This is a big primary,” he said. “It probably doesn’t get much bigger than this, every four years. And you never know who’s gonna walk through the door. We’ve had President Obama here, prior to Election Day, five years ago, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed who shows cause it’s always good for business.”