Sheila Glickman Leventhal isn’t your average Jewish American grandma. The 82-year-old owner of Cecil’s Deli in St. Paul, Minnesota, the spot her parents opened and where she’s been peeling and dicing potatoes since she was eight years old, is also an every day yogi and was recently named the St. Paul deli matriarch.
In a chaotic, fun interview with lots of laughter, Sheila (along with the occasional two cents from her daughter Becca Kvasnik) told me the most important factor to restaurant success, the most essential Jewish ingredient, and how she’s pretty confident she could still make schmaltz on Mars.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What is it like running a Jewish food space in an off the beaten path Jewish area?
Sheila: Listen. We’re not off the beaten path. A lot of Jews settled here. They may have gone to New York but then they came here, either because they had family here or because they found it safer. I know that’s the way my mother-in-law felt, who first settled in Brooklyn.
What is the most popular menu item?
Sheila: The Reuben, absolutely.
Name a food that was once popular and has since gone out of style.
Sheila: Let’s say tongue. If you’re a New Yorker, you expect tongue on the menu. Tongue was an item that we discontinued because people stopped wanting it. It wasn’t healthy. We used to stuff the chicken neck…
Becca: Oh Jesus.
Sheila: … I can still see my grandmother standing there stuffing the chicken neck. We have it in the case, though we don’t make it. We have it frozen in the case. I’m pretty sure I can make it. I just don’t know where I would get the skin off the chicken neck.
Becca: Sounds like a winter project.
Do you think people are looking for more traditional Jewish dishes or a modern twist?
Sheila: It’s all about the old favorites. We sell a lot of chicken matzah ball soup. A lot! And sweet and sour cabbage borscht. It’s always been popular.
Have you seen an increased interest in Jewish food lately?
Sheila: When my husband and I got married in 1961, there were 13 Jewish delis in St. Paul. That’s not including Minneapolis. Today, there is only one in St. Paul.
What’s the secret to success?
Sheila: I consider consistency the biggest part of being able to stay in business. Be consistent and try to keep your people happy.
What do your non-Jewish customers think of the deli?
Sheila: After the Jews left the neighborhood the non Jews took their place very quickly and were our best customers. They wanted kosher corned beef, but with all the kosher meat places in Chicago closing down things got more difficult.
Any secrets you’re willing to share for making great Jewish food?
Sheila: Schmaltz! My parents opened this business in 1949 and my mother always used beef liver (to make chopped liver). She never used chicken liver. Now, we use beef liver and combine it with onions and schmaltz. It’s to taste and it’s a simple thing. A little bit of schmaltz in everything goes a long way.
Is there a story behind the menu? Any nostalgic menu items?
Sheila: The menu hasn’t dropped many of the original items. The current menu is huge. My son creates the menu and he gets a little carried aways because he’s always wanting to create new things. I would say the matzah ball soup.
Becca: And the corn beef sandwich.
Sheila: Oh, and the potato salad and coleslaw! Our potato salad and creamy coleslaw recipe has not changed since I was a little girl.
Where do you see Jewish food going?
Sheila: Let me just say that I plan to be here another 20 years.
Sheila: My daughter thinks I’ll outlive her. Anyway, I don’t think Jewish food will ever go away. I see the way people are. They love it. You should see what it’s like at Christmas, how the people flock! The young families, the old families, they love our food and they love that kind of food. I think that’s how things are always going to be unless we live on another planet where the delivery would be harder. Although we might be able to create our own (schmaltz), all we really need is a chicken.