Book excerpt: Ella's Deli
Ella's is closing in January 2018. It'll be hard to say goodbye. Here's an excerpt from our book "Madison food: a history of capital cuisine" about the Madison institution. Enjoy - and try to go out for a grilled pound cake sundae while you can.
Origins on State Street
The stories intertwined with Ella’s demonstrate the intersection of diverse paths and a quirky spirit that is quintessentially Madison. Open since 1976, the current East Washington location was Ella’s Deli’s second. The first was at 425 State Street.
Before its four decades as a deli and restaurant, the storefront at 425 State had been for 30 years a grocery. Prior to that, a succession of student-centric diners had held sway going back to at least 1908. At that time, Miss Helena Preiss ran The "U.W." Restaurant, where a dinner cost twenty cents, or eleven for two dollars. “U.W.” was followed by the College Inn, then the Badger Restaurant; in November 1909, confectioner Al J. Schwoegler, "the original Bitter Sweet king," branched out from Keeley's Palace of Sweets and opened his own store and advertised its "cozy little booths that are a new innovation in this city." Nicknamed “The Cozy,” his candy shop enchanted students for almost a decade.
In 1918, “Chilly Al” Felly ran his Wisconsin Lunch there. Felly, once a line rider on King Ranch in Texas, brought back to Madison his “secret Aztec recipe,” and it was a hit. So much so that wanted gangster John Whitfield brought his girlfriend to Al’s for lunch one day. Al called the police, but Whitfield slipped away, only to be apprehended in Cleveland; Al testified against Whitfield and used the $600 reward to open the beloved Felly’s at 2827 Atwood Avenue in about 1929, which his wife Lydia operated from Al’s death in 1937 until 1943.
Back at 425 State, in 1920 Chester A. Pledger had opened the State Street Cafe which quickly turned into Tom Yaka’s W Cafe. In 1930 it was converted into the Mack-Olson Food Shop, which it remained until Marty Rosen opened his delicatessen in 1960. Around that time, Ella Hirschfeld was running the kosher food service at UW-Hillel, to great acclaim. The rabbi encouraged her to go into business for herself, and so on July 4, 1963, she opened Ella’s Deli, selling groceries and serving classic dishes like borscht, blintzes and corned beef. A short four years later, she retired to Florida with her husband Harry and sold Ella’s to Nathan Balkin.
Balkin and his son Ken brought Ella’s into a new era. 1976 was the inaugural of the East Washington location, operated by Nat Balkin’s son Ken in a former mobile home showroom. Two years later, Nat added an old-fashioned soda fountain to the State Street location while retaining the traditional deli features. It was then that he created the famous #1 grilled pound cake hot fudge sundae, served in several variations to this day. Balkin gradually expanded Ella’s into the adjoining addresses, absorbing Bluteau's Meat Market where Gordon Hocking (husband of original Ella’s server Bonnie) worked.
Meanwhile, out on the east side, Ken Balkin was living a dream. Ella’s had become a showcase for colorful motorized contraptions, from airplanes to bandstands and barely disguised characters from comics and cartoons. They were all handcrafted in Madison by Ken Vogel (sculptor and puppetmaster), Jerry Siegmann (mechanisms and maintenance expert), and Al Bayer (the mad mind behind "Stainless Stella" the robot greeter), plus an anonymous helper. In summer of 1982, Ken Balkin unveiled a vintage 1927 C.W. Parker carousel. It was one of fewer than 75 operating in the entire country at that time. He picked up the carousel itself in North Tonawanda, New York, and the horses came from Cincinnati. After painstaking restoration with help from many of Ella’s 125 employees, the fabulous ride became quickly beloved of Madisonians young and old.
Back on State Street, Nat sold Ella’s to Bonnie and Gordy Hocking, who ran it for the next decade or so. In 1999 it closed after the Hockings sold the business to restaurateur Vasilis Kallias, one-time owner of Mykonos Philly Steaks and Subs. Kallias and Stefan Dandelles kept the staff and most of the menu for their new Cafeli (a portmanteau of cafe and deli). It was rather short-lived; in 2002, Hawk Schenkel, a former manager at Amy's Cafe and server at Cafe Continental, bought the business and did a total overhaul of the space to open Hawk's, the current tenant of 425 State.
Kallias, despite citing a desire to spend more time with family, could only stay away from the business for a few months. In 2003 he bought Mercury Deli at 117 East Mifflin from Kira Wehn. Wehn (then Bailes) had started Mercury as a lunch delivery service based in the kitchen of Restaurant Magnus. She and Kurt Wynboom, Magnus’ pastry chef, landed Mercury its own home in September 2001 in the former Horn of Africa space. Kallias also ran Opa, a Greek taverna-style restaurant, at 558 State Street from 2009 to 2011. When the Underground Kitchen fire claimed Mercury in summer 2011, Kallias was undaunted; in summer of 2012, he opened Vasilis’ Take Five Vittles and Vices in the former home of Corner Store at 901 Williamson Street.