New book tells the tale of Montclair’s Watchung Deli
The history and flavors of an iconic former Montclair deli live on in a new book by Robert and Jeanne Johannsen.
The Watchung Delicatessen, a staple township business from 1926 to its closing in 2020, has a long ownership history.
First opened by the Schwartzman family, it was then sold in 1951 to the Lillienthal family. In 1978, Inge and Henry Johannsen, parents of Robert Johannsen, bought the store. The delicatessen stayed in the Johannsen family from 1978 to 2015, when they sold it to Peter and Anne von Hoffman, the final owners of the almost century-old business.
Robert and Jeanne Johannsen's new book, "Watchung Delicatessen Stories and Recipes," was inspired by the deli's closing in December of 2020.
"We needed closure and wanted to get the recipes out there because we thought to ourselves, 'Why are we saving them? Who are we saving them for?’" Jeanne Johannsen said.
The book begins with the Johannsen family history.
Inge and Henry Johannsen immigrated to the U.S. in 1954 from a small German island called Insel Fohr. The couple purchased their first deli in Brooklyn in 1958 and lived above it, where they raised their four children.
"All of my sisters and brothers worked in my parents' delis, we grew up there," Robert Johannsen said.
The family moved to New Jersey in 1969, where they purchased a deli in Dumont before buying the Watchung Delicatessen in February of 1978.
In 1981, Robert and Jeanne were married and moved to the Montclair Heights section of Clifton to be closer to the deli where they and the rest of the Johannsen family worked. Then, in 1989, they took over full ownership of the deli from his parents, and it stayed that way until 2015.
But the story is not just a family affair, it is also a tribute to the community that built itself around a love for the deli, which was apparent even in the 1980s.
"Together with my parents, we became part of a town that we had never even heard of," Robert Johannsen writes. "Montclair accepted us and all that we did with open arms.”
The Johannsens reciprocated this community love. Jeanne Johannsen explained that when someone new came in, they wouldn't be new by the end of their trip. The deli employees and owners usually knew customers so well that they practically knew the person's entire family as well.
"Kids who grew up and went to college or moved somewhere else would move back when they had their own families and would visit the deli," Robert Johannsen said.
The nostalgia of the deli reaches across the country. When a former employee heard that the Johannsens were writing a book, he sent them a letter thanking them for his experiences working at the deli in high school and recently bought himself a copy.
Along with the deli's history, the Johannsens share the stories and recipes behind the names of some of their most popular sandwiches, like the Angry Dwarf and Otto's Club.
The Angry Dwarf is said to have been the deli's most famous sandwich, and the recipe was created by a Montclair High School student named Jason Bartholomew.
"He was constantly trying different combinations and wound up creating our signature sandwich," the Johannsens write. "It became so popular that it had six variations, and a logo was created for us by one of our loyal customers."
The book offers a glimpse into the sought-after and fought-over honor of having a sandwich named after you.
"We started naming sandwiches before it was a really big thing," Robert Johannsen said.
In one instance, a famous Montclair resident convinced the Johannsens to auction off naming rights to a sandwich at the deli for a local fundraiser. The naming rights were caught in the middle of a bidding war, and in the end, two people donated $4,000 each, which ended up being the largest bid of the night. The result: the Otto’s Club.
The book was published in partnership with Margot Sage-El from Watchung Booksellers, and can only be purchased through that store.