Montclair remembers Watchung Deli
Courtesy Kevin Johannsen
By Andrew Garda
Another iconic Montclair establishment has closed. The Watchung Deli, in business since 1926, will be shutting its doors due to the strain caused by the pandemic.
“We are very sorry, but we are closing,” a sign posted on the front door states. “It has been a difficult decision. Thank you for your support over the years.”
Ownership did not respond for comment, but on the establishment’s Facebook page, a post encouraged the deli’s followers to support local businesses.
“Small businesses are the backbone of this wonderful town we live in, and we encourage everyone to shop locally during this trying time,” the post reads.
‘I’m still struggling to process’
Kevin Johannsen’s parents, Robert and Jeanne, owned the deli from 1986 until 2015, taking over the business from Robert’s parents, Inge and Henry Johannsen. The elder Johannsens purchased the deli in 1978 after emigrating from Germany in the 1950s and owning delis in Brooklyn and Dumont. They bought the store from Henry and Tilly Lilienthal, who had owned it since 1951. The Lilienthal had purchased it from the Schwartzman brothers, who opened it in 1926.
Gary and Maureen Kiffer would buy into the business with the Johannsen family in 1999. The two couples sold the deli to Peter and Anne von Hoffman, the current owners, in 2015.
Robert Johannsen said he and his wife both grew up into the business.
“I’m still struggling to process the enormity of the news that the Watchung Deli is closing,” he said. “It’s probably because that store meant so much to me and my family. Like so many family businesses it was central to our lives and was a source of great pride.”
“I started in the deli in 1979 when I was 21,” Robert Johannsen recalled. “My wife came into the store, then later on my mother showed her the kitchen. While we were in the store, we wound up getting married, having kids, putting kids through college, [having] grandchildren. You know, our whole life was 36 years of being in the store.”
Robert Johannsen said he had no idea how much the deli meant to his kids until the closure was announced.
A German television crew even came by the deli to do a story on Robert because he spoke a certain German dialect and did a 20-minute segment on him and the deli. Even the Montclair High School lacrosse team made an appearance.
For Kevin Johannsen, the store represented a community and a home when he was a child.
“My sister and I spent many summers hanging out in the back room, where my father put a TV and made the area under the stairs leading to the second floor a ‘clubhouse,’” he said. “It provided so much for me, my family and the community. It’s where I learned the value of hard work – having worked there myself for a time – and made connections that set me on my career path.”
The sense of community is what powered the deli, Robert Johannsen said, especially the high school kids. Montclair High School and Montclair Kimberley Academy students competed to name sandwiches on the menu, a Watchung Deli tradition that gave birth to “The Angry Dwarf,” named after a young kid who used to come into the store and tease the staff, who teased him back; “The Benny Mac,” which came about when kids decided they wanted mac ’n’ cheese on a sandwich, and “The Angry Cowboy.”
“‘The Angry Cowboy’ was a mistake, with my wife putting ranch dressing on the sandwich instead of mayonnaise. Later on, we tried it and we said, ‘Oh, this is pretty good,’” Robert Johannsen recalled. “So, it was all kinds of fun stuff.”
Occasionally sandwiches were the result of more serious things, such as “The Mitch,” which was named after Mitchell Perlmeter, a MHS student who died in 2011. Along with honoring his memory, it was also a fundraiser.
At the end of the day, regardless of why the names were made, the fact that the customers had a say in the names created a feeling of community, most of the time for kids, who would then drag in their parents.
Robert Johannsen said both talk show host Stephen Colbert and cosmetics icon Bobbi Brown came in for the first time because their kids insisted. Both would become a fixture, like many parents whose kids insisted they needed a “Benny Mac” and only that.
Sandwich and soups
Hundreds of residents shared their favorite sandwiches and memories of the deli on social media.
“So bummed,” Montclair resident Kerry Ryan posted. “It was our go-to Saturday lunch spot. A real-deal deli. I will miss their turkey Reubens.”
“Their soups and ‘The Angry Dwarf’ sandwiches were great,” wrote Sally St. John.
A common refrain was that Watchung Deli was one of the first places they ate in town.
“First meal I bought after I moved into my apartment on Claremont Ave. was from there [in] March 1974,” Barbara Rudy posted. “[I] worked in Watchung Plaza from 2003-2010, got coffee in the a.m. and lunch most days from Robert and Jeanie and Gary and Maureen [Kiffer]. Simply the best people. The deli was always squeaky clean and professionally run.”
“Our first friends when we moved to Montclair, the Bartons, introduced us to (among many other delights) Watchung Deli and its Reuben sandwich in 1982,” wrote Maureen Edelson.
“I wish Watchung Deli all the best in the future. They were a Montclair landmark, and I’ll always have great memories of delicious sandwiches from them,” wrote Jeff Beck.
Beck, owner of East Side Mags, said that as a small business owner, it’s difficult to hear about another small business going under.
“It's especially heartbreaking to see a century-old business go out,” he said. “And I know the community was there to support it because I was going every chance I had and there was always a line or a short wait. But sometimes no matter how much you try to support, it’s not always enough.”
Edelson wrote: “It is sinful – perhaps evil – that an environment has been created in New Jersey to not let commerce, particularly small business, thrive. How the world has turned since 1982.”