Step inside Jake's Delicatessen, 1634 W. North Ave., and you might as
well be entering a time machine, a real-life "Streets of Old
Milwaukee." The clientele is different than it was 50 years ago --
this urban North side landmark was once the hub for a thriving Jewish
community -- but the booths are the same, the fixtures are the
same, and most important, the corned beef is exactly the same.
And that's just how the owners like it.
You're probably familiar with two out of the three of Jake's owners. The newest partner is Brian Miller, whose family owns Miller Bakery. The other is the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.
Yes, Alan H. "Bud" Selig holds a stake in the business. In 1967, Selig, Julius Atkins, Irv Kassof and the late Ben Barkin formed an ownership group to preserve their favorite deli when it was sold by Jake Levine. They didn't change a thing -- they simply bought the restaurant to ensure that it stayed exactly as it was.
For Miller, a Fox Point native who thought he'd practice law in Chicago -- then wound up returning home to work in the family business -- the appeal of Jake's was part history, and part his love for "street food." So when Atkins wanted to sell his shares in 2006, Miller found himself ready to jump into the deli business.
"Jake's is a restaurant with a great history, old-school charm and character, and serves terrific fresh street food," says Miller. "To me, the definition of street food is great food -- better than chain fast food -- that is accessible to everyone of all races and socioeconomic groups."
fact, it's the classification of his restaurant, says Miller, that
could use a little updating. "Being that we have a very limited menu, I
wouldn't call us a deli anymore."
In the strictest sense of the word, Miller is right. Compared to Milwaukee's other predominant deli, Benji's, lunch at Jake's might consist of a corned beef or a pastrami sandwich and a cup of matzo ball soup. Wash it down with a Dr. Brown's Cream Soda, and you're good to go. Your choices are not exactly expansive.
And trendy health food it is not.
But is steeped with tradition, which is why Miller loves it, and speculates that's the reason his partners do, too. Despite his busy schedule, Selig still dines at Jake's regularly. It's typical to see him having lunch with Sen. Herb Kohl.
That kind of passion, Miller says, makes Selig one of the most down-to-earth business partners a young entrepreneur could hope for.
"He's been nothing but happy to answer questions and take my phone calls," says Miller. "He really cares about the business."
Now, Miller and Selig, along with Michael Kassof (the son of Irv, who runs the place on a daily basis), work to keep the tradition alive.
And in some ways, it even keeps growing. Though the makeup of the neighborhood is completely different than it was when the deli opened in the '50s -- Jake's has garnered one of the most diverse clienteles in Milwaukee.
"I joke with people sometimes when I say that Jake's is the Elsa's of the near West Side," says Miller. "Elsa's draws a lot of people from different backgrounds, and I think Jake's does the same thing.
"You'll be sitting next to a federal judge, sitting next to an assembly worker next to a teacher next to a student -- all different races -- all sitting and eating in harmony. It sounds a little teary-eyed, but it's true."
Would business be better for a Jewish deli if it was located, say, in Fox Point?
"I don't know," says Miller. "We're open 25 hours a week right now, and we're busy from the moment we open till the moment we close."
More importantly, Miller says he remains committed to this neighborhood.
"This community was mostly Jewish and now it's African-American -- they have both supported us."
Miller, who is Jewish, says he's proud that this business is a part of his heritage -- but he's actually more proud about what Jake's means to Milwaukee as a whole.
"To me, the real story is that for the last 50 years, Jake's has overcome the challenges of the neighborhood, the explosion of national chains serving sandwiches and peoples' 'eat on the run attitude' to remain very successful. We are a Milwaukee landmark, an institution that needs to be recognized by the next generation of Milwaukeeans, to ensure that another 50 years of great corned beef and pastrami sandwiches will be served."
Though that doesn't mean Jake's isn't looking for new opportunities in the future -- including opening new locations.
"A natural progression for us is to be Downtown and to have more accessibility to later-hour dining to capture some of the nightlife business that we're not able to do at this location," says Miller. "When the time is right, we're definitely going to try to gently expand the menu, and we may offer some sausages or hand-cut French fries or desserts -- to try to bring in some of the tourist business that maybe has never heard of Jake's."
At the 16th and North location, though, rest assured: nothing is changing.
"We intend to be here indefinitely. We don't want to abandon what's made Jake's special."
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.