Cecil’s: Homegrown and Homemade

Photo+courtsey+of+Flickr+user+Jeremy+Noble.

Photo courtsey of Flickr user Jeremy Noble.

Photo courtsey of Flickr user Jeremy Noble.
Photo courtsey of Flickr user Jeremy Noble.

When Cecil’s opened in 1949 there were 13 other delis just like it. They were all in Saint Paul, in Highland Park, and centralized to roughly eight square blocks. All were of the same ilk: New York-style delicatessens that served the local community. Now, Cecil’s is the only one left.

Known for its traditional reuben sandwiches, matzo ball soup and cabbage borsch, Cecil’s Deli is an anachronistic holdout, staving off the extinction that has consumed all others.

“Back in the 40’s, that’s kind of how it was—there was a delicatessen on every corner, a grocery store every other; a convenience store, a general store,” Brad Hall, the manager of Cecil’s Deli, said. “Over the years Cecil’s has expanded, changed things, and in that time many of the other delicatessens have shut down.” Some luck is involved, as is the case with any project of such longevity. But longevity is success, and generations of recipes and a robust drive to maintain the family business have organically coalesced to form a stable, healthy operation.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Cecil and Faye Glickman lived off of Selby and Dale, which was at the time a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. In the middle of the twentieth century, as the makeup of local communities evolved they moved West, living off of Macalester Street. In the latter half of the 1940s and continuing into the 1950s and 1960s Highland Park became a nucleus for the Jewish community. In 1949 the Glickmans purchased Cecil’s, then a small storefront just down the street from Highland Park’s commercial hub. In the 1980s the Glickmans sold Cecil’s to their daughter, Sheila, and her husband.

Cecil’s is rather unique because of its multi-dimensional character. The space houses a traditional deli—complete with counter service and take-away items from multiple coolers. Then in the 1960s they converted a production area in the back half of the space to a restaurant and a bakery. The addition of the restaurant was out of an interest in expanding business operations, while the bakery materialized out of necessity. “Times had changed. In the 40’s and 50s you could find a bakery a block or so away and get a product from them,” Hall said. “As that changed Cecil and Faye felt it was necessary to add their own bakery. And with that they expanded the items they made both in the delicatessen area and the restaurant.”

Products evolved, yet the location remains the same, as does the physical space. Just across the street from St. Kate’s University, Cecil’s exterior façade is non-descript—brown brick walls with five inset windows rest below a large, horizontal white sign. The building is low-slung, forgettable, and if you’re not paying attention, forgotten. A neon ‘Open’ sign hangs in the window, flanked by a more reserved ‘Dietza Watson’ and baby blue ‘Vienna Beef.’ The interior is romantic and simple, seemingly appropriated from the iconic delis in New York. “The dark colors, the wood colors, that’s just a holdover from the 60s and 70s. There was wood paneling [then]. The red seats was something added 25 years ago,” Hall said. Prior to a remodel in 1990 the Americana restaurant aesthetic extended through the deli to the storefront, the wood paneling evocative of homey family dinners and a comforting community night. The black and white tile in the deli was only recently added following the 1990 remodel.

Hall credits the owners with wanting to honor a timeless look. “If I’m correct they wanted to stay true to what the original history was, and what the original space looked like. That’s why the tables [in the restaurant] are wood-like, and the chairs are the parlor, the ice cream parlor-like-chairs cause that’s very similar to what people expect and they’re looking for. It’s very stereotypical, but as time goes on that’s just how we look. So people expect that.”

There is a specific debt to uniformity, feel, and quality that is also apparent in the way that Cecil’s conducts business. Products have remained roughly the same for over sixty years, and all the initial recipes were Faye’s. With a specific debt to family tradition, Faye crafted items that range from cabbage borsch to coleslaw to chopped liver and potato salad.

For over 60 years they’ve contracted with only two principal meat distributors, both of whom are out of Chicago. From the 1940s through the 1980s Cecil’s worked with Kosher Zion, a kosher meat manufacturer. Starting in the 1980s Cecil’s switched contracts, opting for a non-kosher brand, Vienna Beef. “We’ve been with them for a long time,” Hall said. “And as time goes on we’ve brought in products from other people, and brought in products from other manufacturers, but they don’t always survive. So that’s what we handle right now.”

When asked what distinguishes Vienna Beef from other products, Hall offered a simple answer: quality. “Many of the other products now are heavily processed. Product is cut and then they inject it with the necessary flavors and so forth that they want and then they cook it.” Vienna operates differently. “Proper pastrami, for instance, is a brisket cut and its smoked. Then you take the brisket, flip flop it around in seasonings, cinnamon, pepper, then you cook it. That gives it a much stronger profile,” Hall said. Vegetable produce is sourced through Twin Cities vendors, yet even items such as Swiss cheese are located only through a select few brands.

Cecil’s does, on occasion, receive meat products from manufacturers in New York. Similar to Chicago the meat production industry in New York is strong, but due to general manufacturing and distribution costs sourcing from the East Coast can be prohibitively expensive. And on the other side, meat products localized to the Twin Cities are both hard to come by and of a lesser quality than those from Chicago. “Fifty years ago there were meat packing facilities,” Hall said. “Off of University there were a number of plants where they did a lot of meat packing. Downtown Saint Paul. Downtown Minneapolis, as well as the south side of Saint Paul.”

Hall continues: “It’s hard to get the product that we use from anyone in the cities. It’s just not manufactured. We deal with very few meat vendors because we really have found places that produce a product that we, and our customers, are used to.”

Due to streamlined manufacturing processes synthetic meat producers can offer lower price points, sparking a discussion about which demographics Cecil’s attracts. “Young families,” Hall said. As the demographics of Highland Park have changed so have Cecil’s patrons. “Dozen plus years ago there were people, more people in their sixties and seventies, and when they move out their homes come on the market. People that live in the suburbs, that’s where those new community people are coming from.” And yet Hall makes a point of Cecil’s capacity to draw not just from Highland Park, but the larger metro as whole. “Because people have moved out they’ll come back, and they’ll make the trek from Minneapolis, or from the other ‘burbs or other cities. They’ll trek in to get that reuben.” Hall said that patronage from college students is rare, perhaps given higher price points, yet he also mentioned that student visits are inevitable given the concentration of campuses in the western areas of Saint Paul.

While competition has faded it hasn’t remained dormant. Delis of a similar feel and philosophy have opened, stayed for a time, then closed. Even with extensive financial backing, Hall says, they lack an intangible know-how, something championed through the generations at Cecil’s. “It goes back to producing a product that you know how to it is supposed to taste, or you knew what it was supposed to taste [like],” Hall said. “They just don’t know how to make it. No one has really lasted that long. Life span is really five – ten years, then they are gone.” Rye Deli is perfect case and point. Located in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood, Rye Deli was founded in the fall of 2011 as a traditional Jewish deli by David Weinstein, a lawyer and commercial real estate developer. Rye folded in the spring of 2014. Weinstein cited increasing beef prices and errors in developing the ‘right’ products as reasons for the deli’s closure.

“You can’t buy it. You can’t borrow it. You can’t make it up,” Hall said.

Cecil’s has become a marker, both for food and time. In many ways Cecil’s is a snapshot of broader social movements and economic landscapes—the movement of the Jewish community from Selby and Dale to Highland Park, eventually migrating further out to the suburbs to places like St. Louis Park, Minnetonka, and Golden Valley, among others. On a local level, Cecil’s is the only traditional New York deli left. It is an independent and successful point in a matrix of corporate sandwich locations that include Jimmy John’s, Panera, Potbelly, Which Wich and Subway. Regionally, Cecil’s is a window into evolving economic planes. In a competition with Chicago over industrial activity, the meat production facilities that once occupied urban Twin Cities addresses have traveled south. One local subset of industrial specialization is gone.

As we wrapped up our conversation Mr. Hall told me a story. One of the owners had a conversation with a customer and she asked why they don’t sell a specific product. “And the owner said that we haven’t carried that for about 25 years. And the customer said no, no I’m pretty sure I came in for it. Well, no you haven’t. It’s been 25 years. And after battering back and forth she said well how do you know it was 25 years? He said because Ms. Singer passed away 25 years ago and she made them for us.”

Mr. Hall smiled. “That encompasses everything we do here.”


Cecil’s is located at: 651 Cleveland Ave S (6 blocks south of Randolph Ave.) St Paul, MN 55116

Cecil’s Deli Hours: Mon. – Sun., 9:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. Cecil’s Restaurant Hours: Mon. – Sun., 9:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.

Recommended Items: Reuben, coleslaw, apple cobbler.

Special thanks to Brad Hall and Cecil’s Deli.