Everything I Know About Life I Learned At Al's Deli

Chances are my life would've turned out differently if not for Al's Deli. I was young and directionless, as most college sophomores are, with vague aspirations of becoming a music writer. Granted, I knew nothing about music, other than I had watched Almost Famous and a career riding on tour with bands and opining about records sounded romantic.

But that changed the moment I walked through the doors of 914 Noyes Street in Evanston, Illinois, drawn by a handwritten "Help Wanted" sign. Little did I know, Al's Deli would become the best, most formative job I ever had. It was a place that taught me about food, wine, love, and became a reassuring constant when my family was splintering apart. It even led me down a path of food and beer writing. And it revealed to me one of life's simplest truths: A well-made sandwich is the quickest path we mortals have to experiencing the divine.

"Can you work Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays during the day? Do you live nearby? Can you speak French?"

I answered all three questions in the affirmative—knowing French was a bonus, not a requirement—and I was hired. The job paid minimum wage, no tips, but I was promised a sandwich at the start of my shift and a sandwich to take home after work. I was 19—this was fine by me.

Al's Deli seemed, even at first glance, like a charming place to work. Snapshots from Paris lined the walls, opera or classical music drifted from the radio, and each tiny bistro table had its meager surface area reduced by a glass vase of fresh carnations. A sign above the register indicated the deli accepts Euros—offering a decent exchange rate—which the owners said helped their "walking-around money" for their next trip to Paris.

The namesake Al was Al Pottinger, who opened up the delicatessen a few blocks from the Northwestern University campus in 1949. His sons Bob and John continue running the lunch-only restaurant today—typically Bob's spectacled face peeks from behind the meat slicer while John takes the orders, fingers flying over the old-school adding machine's clacking buttons.

Al's deli customers are legion. The Fans of Al's Deli Facebook group has devoted members who post personal messages to the brothers; many send photos of their Al's Deli T-shirts from far-flung places. Any alum of Northwestern worth their Near-Ivy degree has an abiding love for the deli's creamy tomato soup. I still send Bob and John a card at Christmas, addressed to the deli.

Most of these people are fans because of the food: The deli's roast beef sandwiches and soups are tops, though really anything that comes out from behind the retro glass deli cases is near perfect. Bob and John, now in their sixties, are huge Francophiles, and they've slowly turned the deli into a European-style sandwich shop serving roast beef and bearnaise sandwiches on baguettes, housemade macarons, soupe au pistou, and on special occasions, gratin dauphinois by the half-pint.

While most customers associated Al's with the French-style food and Bob and John's exacting standards for it, the beating heart of Al's Deli was always the people—customers and staff alike. Three years after I started work there, these two men, Bob and John, would be like family to me, and the somewhat dusty little deli under the train tracks would be one of the only places in the world I felt happy.

One of the first lessons I learned at work is that Bob and John do not rush, and they do not compromise. My job as an apron-clad counter girl was to keep orders in order—matching the finished sandwiches to the correct customer—and fetching accoutrements like cookies, sodas, soups, and chips. I also helped out in the back, peeling potatoes and onions for soups and chopping and washing leeks at hours-long clips.

I had to chop and wash vegetables because everything on the menu, except for the sides like macaroni or potato salad, was made from scratch. The French onion soup began as whole onions, the roast beef was roasted in our ovens (Bob likes it cooked to a flavorful still-pink), the frosted cookies were baked and glazed by hand, the blue cheese dressing didn't come from a jar. Baguettes and croissants were delivered from a local bakery most mornings before I arrived.

This meant that the pace around Al's Deli during the lunch rush felt frantic for us and interminably slow for everyone else. Only John could take the orders and only Bob could make the sandwiches, it was decreed, so lunches were assembled and delivered to customers one at a time. We had no computerized point-of-sales machines, no digital cash register, no phone-ahead ordering. If I ever filled in at the register, I had to calculate change in my head. The doors opened at 11 a.m. and closed at 4 p.m.—every day except Wednesdays, when the deli closed—and customers waited up to 45 minutes for a sandwich. Once you tasted it, though, the wait time was justified.

This was lesson one: The best things, especially sandwiches, are made with integrity. At first, I'd sort of half-apologize to customers about the wait, or the no-phone-ahead order policy, or the fact that for the first two years I worked there, Al's Deli didn't accept debit cards. But I came to see that each of these idiosyncrasies had a reason behind it, and the reason was usually "because this is the only way we can run our business and keep making the food we the level of obsession it demands." Consequently, today my sandwich standards are exacting, and I have very strong feelings about soup. Simple foods like sandwiches aren't so simple, and yet when they're just right, it's like you've never eaten a sandwich so glorious in your life.

John tried to run the deli on socialist principles. Employees couldn't accept tips, which are offered regularly when you're an earnest college kid sweating in an apron. If someone still left a few bucks for us on a table, we had to split it evenly amongst all two or three kids working that day, even though that came out to about 60 cents each.

We were also forcibly loaded down with food to take home at the end of the day: My roommates were the biggest fans of my deli job. Entire artisan rosemary-olive bread loaves, quarts of soup, a half-dozen cookies—I could go weeks without grocery shopping when I had enough shifts at Al's. Bob and John said it was to keep us from being alienated from the fruits of our labor—seriously—but I think they also took pity on our microwave-based college diets and wanted us to eat some real food. They had a knack for spotting which employees were really having a hard time money-wise, and they'd pack them up extra food and even slot them extra shifts to pad their paychecks.

I sensed that Bob and John quickly developed a paternal affection for us employees. They were the only full-time "adult" employees of the deli; the rest of us part-timers rotated through every year or two or three. Given that level of turnover, it's especially admirable how much time they spent nurturing us as people. When Bob learned that I liked cooking at home, he lent me Julia Child cookbooks and recommended French food blogs to me. When we realized we shared a peculiar sense of humor, Bob loaned me his P.G. Wodehouses and a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces, and would make Monty Python jokes about once a week.

Bob and John were both true Renaissance men who knew a ton about French wine, European history, sailing regattas, world cuisine, mystery novels, gardening, and Scotland. This led to another profound lesson: Be curious about everything. They encouraged my research into anything and everything, lending books or expertise on the topics if they could. Hardly any current news topic was off-limits, and John especially liked to banter with me about media and world affairs—with his own special blend of politics thrown in. They treated me like I was an adult with views worthy of consideration, which only made me want to dive deeper into the topics we covered. Knowing I was starting to read up on the finer points of wine and beer, Bob invited me to an after-work wine tasting at the deli where a friend of his poured me an '82 Mouton-Rothschild, which remains to this day, one of the best wines to ever pass my lips. When they found out I hadn't yet been to Chicago's Belgian beer mecca, Hopleaf Bar, they organized an informal Wednesday field trip for over-21 staff. There was a boundless generosity to these two brothers, despite their at-times crabby attitudes toward "the rest of the world." If you were in their circle, they really cared about you.

A place like Al's Deli attracts a certain type of customer. This person doesn't mind waiting half an hour for soup, because lunch is also a chance to banter with Bob about brie-en-croute or complain with John about the state of pretty much everything. Without WiFi, a credit card machine, TVs, or readily available outlets, the deli created a momentary time capsule where good food and company reigned over convenience.

Naturally, I met some of my favorite people there, including a charming two-year boyfriend who'd seen me behind the counter and finally invited me to a party hosted by his roommate. We found we shared a passion for baking (mine: cakes; his: biscuits) and whipping up ambitious meals that stretched our college budgets and available kitchen appliances. Bob and John liked him, too, and eventually he also ended up with a job at Al's Deli for a summer. I'm not sure whether I formally submitted this young man for approval to my bosses at Al's, but their opinion mattered to me. They are shrewd judges of character, and we all deemed this young man delightful. When he moved away for medical school, the force of his absence refracted between my personal and work lives, creating a melancholy echo chamber.

Through Al's, I also became friends with a sommelier, an erstwhile tech reporter, and numerous other steady customers who were all part of the deli's spiderweb. I took their regular patronage as an outward sign of their rectitude. I was intensely skeptical of people who didn't like Al's Deli and preferred its next-door neighbor, a now-shuttered deli called Rollin' To Go that served Italian-leaning sandwiches at a much more conventional pace. Despite its obvious win in the convenience column, Rollin' To Go seemed a charmless and inferior choice, and a preference for it constituted a basis upon which I swiftly scrubbed a few acquaintances from my social circle. I was uninterested in friendship with people who didn't understand that bearnaise beats marinara any day. The people drawn to Al's didn't mind its quirks, or they were loyal in spite of them. These were the type of people I surrounded myself with during my college stint there, and they were the ones who provided a refuge when my life got pretty shitty.

I'd heard rumblings from my younger brother that the situation at home was a bit off, but when my mom and dad booked separate hotel rooms for my college graduation and couldn't even look at each other across the dinner table, the severity of it sunk in. My parents were splitting up. They didn't address this at all during the weekend. They just packed up and flew home, leaving me confused and driftless without the thin structure that college classes afford.

I didn't yet have a full-time job after college—the recession limped on and my journalism degree now seemed laughable—so my parents gave me one summer to figure job shit out before they'd drag me home to New Jersey. Most of my friends moved out of Evanston after graduation, leaving me with little support during the meandering, anxious, broke summer. I hung around with some weird pothead townies, drank too much, ate too little, and generally did a piss-poor job of what I now know is called "self care."

The timing of my parents' divorce further eroded an already miserable summer. Here I was, trying to take flight into the big scary world, only to look back and seeing my nest was being torn asunder. Despite outward signs that things were not great—I lost 15 pounds, cried at inopportune times, and struggled to sleep—few people checked in on me.

Except for two people.

I was still working at Al's, and I'm pretty sure that job not only saved me, but kept me standing long enough to eventually sort myself out. Bob and John said they needed me to pick up more shifts during the summer while other students were gone. Whether this is true or whether they sensed that the job was the only structure I had, the only reason to shower and show up somewhere at a given time, I can't say. Bob even hired me to do gardening work in the backyard of his beautiful, shaded brick home a few miles' bike ride from the deli. He knew I liked working with plants, and the weed-pulling, raking, and planting provided not just much-needed cash but also some of the only calm I felt that year. "Are you doing okay?" Bob asked me once at the deli, without prying. I brushed off his question, but clung to the fact that someone had asked.

I still looked forward to my shifts there, to the regular customers and the familiar rhythm. I loved that people's faces lit up when I'd hand them their orders. This is the power of a truly good sandwich: It can make a customer's day and maybe even shine a light into a dark, anxious place. "Oh hell yeah, tomato soup day!" they'd say when they saw the handwritten chalkboard sign with the soup du jour. That was another project the brothers gave me: Rewriting all the chalkboard and paper menus, which, in keeping with the deli's aesthetic, could not be computer printed. I spent more time on the project than I needed to, even sketching a little vignette of the deli's front window onto the paper menu.

Eventually, just in time to avoid being forcibly lassoed back to my parents' house, I landed a steady freelance writing job that would allow me to move into Chicago proper. I had to hang up my apron at the deli, but I made regular rides on the Purple Line train to check in and satisfy my soupe au pistou craving. Years later, Al's Deli was still using my handwritten menus, and maybe they still are today. I wish I could have given Bob and John something as permanent as all they shared with me: generosity, compassion, curiosity, a deep and abiding passion for sandwiches. Instead, all I can do is sing their praises and say merci for the baguettes.