Delis or delicatessens have gone through a major evolution. The concept was incepted in Germany more than 300 years ago as retail-only spaces that sold pre-prepared foods, cured meats, cheeses and specialty products. Delis later spread to the US and were specifically popularised by European immigrants in New York.

From there, the hubs progressed to include takeaway and dine-in options as well as broader offerings that covered sandwiches, soups, salads, baked goods and beverages. There are many interpretations of delis, but the common thread is comfort food done well.

Delis are certainly having a moment in Australia’s hospitality scene, with chefs and small business owners creating their own modernised iterations.

Hospitality talks to Sammy Jakubiak from Frank’s Deli and Dom Wilton from Hector’s Deli about setting up shop and why deli food is here to stay.

Within every New York neighbourhood there is bound to be a deli. In most instances they are family-owned businesses that are community spaces where people either gather to eat or to purchase food to go. Sammy Jakubiak sampled the best the city had to offer during a trip with her brother Alek and partner Ben Kelly.

It prompted the trio to open Frank’s Deli (named after Kelly’s grandfather) in Sydney’s Waverly upon returning home. “We spent so much time eating at all the delis, so the inspiration was straight off the back of that,” says Jakubiak.

Ben Kelly, Sammy and Alek Jakubiak

Jakubiak saw parallels between Deli fare and the food she ate growing up, which is now on show at Frank’s. “The food we enjoyed on our travels had similarities to [food from] my Polish background,” she says. “We thought we’d do what we know and love, and we were excited about the menu because it’s things we all enjoyed eating or were a part of our family traditions.”

For Melbourne-based Chef Dom Wilton, the opening of Hector’s Deli happened by chance. After stints in fine dining, he intended to run a French restaurant with wife Vanessa Bossio and cousin Edward Ring, but a delay in permits led to a change of plans.

“We found a site in Richmond on Buckingham Street and it was a little corner shop,” says Wilton. “We wanted to do something easy, approachable and recognisable where there was no spin or twist.”

Wilton drew on his own personal experiences when coming up with the idea for Hector’s. “I remember sitting around a table and I said, ‘a deli to me growing up was like a corner store that sold sandwiches’,” says the chef. “I knew I wanted to have deli in the name and I was sitting there with my cousin and I said, ‘What was your dog’s name?’ and he said, ‘Hector’, and I said, ‘Perfect’.”

What was meant to be a temporary gig spawned into something that would have mass appeal. “From day one, we just had huge lines out the door,” says Wilton. “By the time we had done it for a year, we still hadn’t received approval on the French restaurant, so we decided to focus on Hector’s because it was so popular.”

Sandwiches are one of the main attractions at a deli and are the ideal vessels for cured meats, pickles and condiments. There are all sorts of sandwiches on the menu at Frank’s Deli, but a classic Reuben was non-negotiable for Jakubiak.

“The only thing I wanted on the menu was a Reuben,” she says. “It is the quintessential sandwich and it’s what everyone should want to eat if they want a sandwich.”

Jakubiak’s Reuben uses Wagyu brisket pastrami from LP’s Quality Meats, house-made sauerkraut and pickles that are layered in between two pieces of caraway rye from Brickfields Bakery. The point of difference is the Frank’s sauce, which contains more than 20 ingredients.

“It’s a version of a Russian dressing,” says Jakubiak. “I started out in catering and burger pop-ups, so it was something I developed over the years for burgers that I thought would go very well on the Reuben.”

The sauce also makes an appearance on the Breakfast Sammy which sees folded scrambled egg combined with American cheddar. Customers have a choice of adding brisket pastrami, polish speck or braised miso mushrooms. “We grew up eating what my dad called ‘the Jak-muffin’ from our surnames,” says Jakubiak.

“We were going to put it on the menu, but our family were like, ‘We want something more exciting’, so the Breakfast Sammy was born from that. It was obviously a bit of a namesake, but it’s the family breakfast sandwich and our second best seller.”

Sandwiches were always the name of the game for Wilton. “When we opened Hector’s Deli, we only did five sandwiches because we had 27 square metres of space, but we also wanted to pour our energy into something we thought would be super delicious,” says the chef.

The most-ordered sandwich is also a pastrami-centric creation which has the option to include a house sauce. “It’s thinly-sliced smoked brisket with sweet mustard, pickles, bread, sauerkraut, dill pickles from Westmont and toasted light rye,” says Wilton. “We have a signature sauce called the Hectic sauce which is a mildly spiced mayo.”

Wilton also lists the classic fried chicken sandwich as a crowd favourite. “Our fried chicken sandwich uses a potato bun that we developed which we steam so it’s warm when you eat it,” he says. “The chicken thigh is brined and crumbed in panko before pickle mayo, tarrogon butter and crispy lettuce is added.”

Aside from sandwiches, Frank’s and Hector’s both sell baked goods. “It’s nice [for customers] to grab some of our house-baked items,” says Jakubiak. “We do a blueberry cornbread with polenta and two different flavours of focaccia daily: one of them is potato, rosemary and confit garlic and we also do a seasonal option.”

On a sweeter note, Frank’s Deli is known for a caramel-laden treat called the Brunswick Bun. “It’s like a focaccia and a brioche dropped in caramel,” says Jakubiak. “It’s spiced with cinnamon and cardamom and it’s rich, but light and fluffy.”

Anneliese Brancatisano is behind the bakery selection at Hector’s and has worked with Wilton to reimagine familiar favourites. “The brief was to look towards Baker’s Delight, Brumby’s Bakery and those types of places and elevate their offerings,” says Wilton.

“We’re working on bacon and tomato slices, apple fritter cinnamon rolls and butter tarts. A lot of the inspiration came from Canada (my wife and operations manager is Canadian), so it’s also sort of Tim Hortons-inspired.”

Delis were initially developed to deliver a wide range of options with everything from retail goods to homemade meals. And Jakubiak is doing just this by creating ready-made products for customers. “We usually keep our shelves well stocked with pâté, terrines and cheeses,” she says. “We also make Polish salad that you can buy by the tub and we do a weekly pasta and lasagne.”

A retail section also stocks pantry items from the likes of Condimental, Lulu’s Remedy, Hotluck Club, and Moon Mart. “A lot of [chefs] were out of work during COVID-19, and they took the time to start up their own brands and products,” says Jakubiak. “We really wanted to support people who were doing cool things and having their products on our shelves is really important. Our customers love it.”

Wilton has always stuck with a streamlined menu, but the venue has raised the bar when it comes to beverage options. “The coffee program is becoming more developed and we’re doing some fermented pineapple drinks and specials that are like smoothies,” he says.

The team are kept busy with the progression of Hector’s Deli and are keeping everything in-house. “We roast our own coffee and we come up with bread recipes that are contract baked,” says Wilton. “We are starting to develop [more] baked goods and we’re working our way into salads.”

Delis have always symbolised locality and community, two things that are essential in the current climate. “Because of COVID, everyone’s become much more suburban and I think people really enjoy a local place,” says Jakubiak. “No matter what kind of deli it is, there is an element of, ‘Someone here really cares about what they’re doing’.”

Today’s businesses are rewriting new chapters while carrying on traditions. “Many of us went to delis with our parents when we were young that were family-owned businesses and our parents had their rituals of buying things they liked,” says Jakubiak.

“A new wave of people in the industry are opening up these cool little delis with their version of the products they like to sell and the sandwiches they like to make. It’s hitting the next generation and creating new habits for young people in an approachable way.”

Wilton echoes the same sentiment, and has shifted the public’s perception of what a deli is through Hector’s. “We’ve been open around five years and we knew that the word deli had next to no significance other than what it meant to me growing up,” he says.

“Back then, the response was immediately confusing; people were expecting us to serve cured meats and they didn’t know how to interact with the idea of a deli being a sandwich shop. But it allowed us to build the idea organically and for the immediate community to decide what we are.”

Dom Wilton

While there are many definitions of a deli, the notion of inclusivity is globally shared. “The theme across what we do here is familiarity and accessibility,” says Wilton. “We’re not trying to do anything too fancy; we’re just trying to elevate the classics.”