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Sunday Sitdown with Dan Raskin, who has big changes in store for landmark Manny’s Deli

After 75 years in business in Chicago dating to its Maxwell Street roots, big changes are coming to Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen.

The restaurant at 1141 S. Jefferson, long a favorite with politicians and downtown workers, is getting a $1 million-plus renovation to be unveiled around Thanksgiving.

Another change coming then: Manny’s will be open for the first time on Sundays.

Manny’s fourth-generation owner-operator Dan Raskin — the 32-year-old vice president and great-grandson of founder Jack Raskin — spoke with Chicago Sun-Times reporter Sandra Guy in this exclusive interview about his plans, how Manny’s came to be the only Jewish delicatessen left in the heart of Chicago and his delight in keeping the tradition going.

Question: You are the only one of the four children of Manny’s current president, Ken Raskin, who wanted to go into the restaurant business. What’s the allure?

Answer: This is the life I grew up in. My dad was always here. I really enjoy the customers’ and employees’ stories.

Journalist David Sax wrote a book, “Save the Deli,” about the decline of the Jewish delicatessen, and a documentary out this year, “Deli Man,” features delis in Houston, New York and us here in Chicago. If you look back 30 years, there were 15 to 20 delis in Chicago. Now, there are just a handful.

Part of the decline was because the delis were started by immigrants who came here with nothing and built up wealth. The founders’ kids became educated and didn’t want to stay in a small, family-owned business where they had to work 80 hours a week.

Another major factor is people’s demands for fresh and organic. Yet they don’t realize that grocery-store meats are injected with soy, phosphates and other filler. They can get a high-quality item here for $15 a pound.

For me, it’s all about continuing a family business. The cafeteria customers are extremely diverse, with everyone from high-powered lawyers to people making minimum wage stopping in to get a treat of a corned-beef or pastrami sandwich.

About 80 percent of our business-to-consumer business is dine-in. All of the items here are hand-made and not reheated, just like Grandma used to make.

A major renovation and first-ever Sunday hours are coming to Manny' Deli, a Chicago staple since its Maxwell Street beginnings 75 years ago |  Sun-Times

A major renovation and first-ever Sunday hours are coming to Manny’ Deli, a Chicago staple since its Maxwell Street beginnings 75 years ago | Sun-Times

With the renovation, we’ll be freshening up the cafeteria line with a steam table, a new counter, a larger area for salads — giving people more options.

We sell [cookies] to Aramark at Soldier Field. They resell the cookies inside the venue at most events in the stadium. The cookies are also sold online and at the restaurant. We will have an actual bakery counter in the new space.

We see a new sweet spot in takeout — a growing demand for fresh, organic and convenient food as more and more families move in to the South Loop, the West Loop and the Near North side.

We have a big parking lot in the back of the restaurant, so people can stop by, get what they need and go home. We want to grow with the surrounding neighborhoods.

Q: One of the politicians who frequents Manny’s is Mayor Rahm Emanuel. What’s his favorite?

A: He usually gets matzo ball soup and a combo corned-beef and pastrami sandwich.

Barack Obama — then the president-elect — gets ready to pay as his adviser Valerie Jarrett looks on during a stop at Manny's Nov. 21, 2008.  AP file photo

Barack Obama — then the president-elect — gets ready to pay as his adviser Valerie Jarrett looks on during a stop at Manny’s Nov. 21, 2008. AP file photo

The president-elect  orders pie during his lunchtime visit Nov. 21, 2008.  Getty Images photo

The president-elect orders pie during his lunchtime visit Nov. 21, 2008. Getty Images photo

Q: Manny’s operates a wholesale business selling branded foods to Costco and to restaurants and making decorative cookies for large-scale events.

A: Our business has changed so much, even from 10 years ago. Back then, traders would come here early in the morning and return for lunch. Now, they work from home. We see more tourists now, and we [cater] lots of parties for upward of 200 people. We do [specialty cookies] for the Bears. We did the Grateful Dead’s final concerts [sold with the “Dead” logo decorated on them].

People don’t realize how hard it is to work in a family restaurant. A lot of decisions you are making are from your heart or your gut. It’s not something people would see on paper. I get calls in the middle of the night, and I wake up thinking I forgot to order something. You really have to have a passion for it.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: With two children [ages 4 months and 2 years], my wife Jessica and I are always on the go. On my day off, I spend time with the family. My son loves going to the local park. I try to go to the games — Bulls, Blackhawks, Bears and White Sox.

Richard M. Daley was still Cook County state's attorney and hadn't yet been elected mayor when he made a campaign stop and had a corned beef sandwich with Bob Manfredini at Manny's on Dec. 5, 1988.  Sun-Times file photo

Richard M. Daley was still Cook County state’s attorney and hadn’t yet been elected mayor when he made a campaign stop and had a corned beef sandwich with Bob Manfredini at Manny’s on Dec. 5, 1988. Sun-Times file photo

During a 2003 stop at Manny's, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich points out  TV cameras to Andrew Hernandez, 9, and his brother Abraham, 4, as he signs a bill into law to raise the minimum wage. At left is Maria Sanchez, mother of the Hernandez boys. At right in background is Ken Raskin, owner of Manny's.  AP file photo

During a 2003 stop at Manny’s, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich points out TV cameras to Andrew Hernandez, 9, and his brother Abraham, 4, as he signs a bill into law to raise the minimum wage. At left is Maria Sanchez, mother of the Hernandez boys. At right in background is Ken Raskin, owner of Manny’s. AP file photo

In a post-election day visit in November 2010,  Gov. Pat Quinn greets diners young and old at Manny's.   Sun-Times file photo

In a post-election day visit in November 2010, Gov. Pat Quinn greets diners young and old at Manny’s. Sun-Times file photo

 

This Oct. 29, 2004, photo, found future President Barack Obama, then running for the U.S. Senate, dining with Mayor Richard Daley at Manny's.  AP file photo

This Oct. 29, 2004, photo, found future President Barack Obama, then running for the U.S. Senate, dining with Mayor Richard Daley at Manny’s. AP file photo

Travel Channel host Andrew Zimmern tries the corned beef at Manny's Deli in 2008.  Sun-Times file photo

Travel Channel host Andrew Zimmern tries the corned beef at Manny’s Deli in 2008. Sun-Times file photo

In 1996, U.S. Sen. Carol Mosely-Braun joind then Senate candidate Dick Durbin for a campaign stop at Manny's. Sun-Times file photo

In 1996, U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun joind then-Senate candidate Dick Durbin for a campaign stop at Manny’s. Sun-Times file photo

 

Manny's in 1977.  Sun-Times file photo

Manny’s in 1977. Sun-Times file photo