The deli, which has served Penn's campus for over 30 years, is one of Philly's best. Go ahead and order a sandwich from Koch's Take-Out Shop and Deli. The next time you walk in there, Bob Koch is pretty sure he'll remember your name. "Not only that, but I know what [my customers] ate and what we talked about," says Koch, the longtime owner of the eatery on 43rd and Locust streets. Indeed, for Koch, remembering your name and knowing what you ate is just as important as serving up the goods that have earned his establishment a reputation as one of Philadelphia's top delicatessens. For more than three decades, the biggest draw at Koch's has been the attention and care the Koch family has extended to its patrons since Sid and Fran Koch became West Philadelphia restaurateurs in 1966. "I know five couples who have gotten married after meeting each other in my deli," Koch says on a snowy Thursday afternoon. "And I've been invited to all the weddings." "I learned from my parents how to relate to people. Just treat customers the way they want to be treated and they'll respond," Bob explains. Most customers, in fact, receive much more than a greeting. As a young woman picks up her ham and provolone on wheat, Bob asks her about her grandmother's recent bout with pneumonia. Conversation often runs beyond chitchat because Bob Koch takes pride in knowing and caring about his customers. None of this is to say, however, that food is unimportant at Koch's. Here the sandwiches are unwieldy behemoths with fresh meats and cheeses, the egg salad is prepared by Bob's mother and the desserts are popular fan favorites. When he discusses his wares is perhaps the only time when Bob is completely serious, even stern. "Bread, bagels, everything comes in every day. And the fish -- smoked salmon, whitefish, lox -- is fresh, nothing pre-sliced or frozen." A customer eating near the counter interjects jokingly, "Don't forget to tell him about the addictive stuff you put in the sandwiches." Donald Zenner, a 1974 Penn alumnus, could easily be classified as the No. 1 Kochaholic, frequenting the deli several times every week without fail. This "resident pseudo-intellectual," as Bob calls him, is a fixture there most afternoons. "And when Bob is flirting with the ladies," Zenner laughs, "I'll always throw in a loud comment about his ex-wife." Koch's extensive menu is eclipsed only by the diversity of the people it serves -- students, police officers, businessmen, politicians and celebrities have all waited in line. Oprah Winfrey and Mayor John Street have both stopped in for a bite. And Danica McKellar, better known as Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years, was also a frequent visitor. "She used to come in quietly for her bagels and lox, not wanting anyone to know who she was. And we'd say in a very loud voice, 'Don't worry, Winnie Cooper, we won't tell anyone." Other customers have driven in from Delaware and other states just to satisfy their cravings. Some jet setters, making a stopover in Philadelphia, have been known to take a cab to Koch's and eat lunch before hurrying back to the airport for a connecting flight. "You can get a corned beef special anywhere, but the Penn special, the Drexel special and the others can only be found here," explains Allan Smith, one of Koch's longtime friends and now an employee. Smith is referring to the 10 sandwiches which are described on an enormous board behind the counter. These are, in many ways, the prized possession of the deli: all are complex, gargantuan combinations of meats, cheeses and sauces. The Penn special alone contains three types of meat, coleslaw, Russian dressing and sweet Muenster cheese on rye bread. The specials' names represent important people -- "The Sid and Fran," for instance -- and the colleges that provide such a loyal customer base. "We had a Wharton freshman. He came in last year and told me that my place was too small, that I should redesign my price structure and open another branch. And he said, 'You have a Penn special and a Drexel special, so where's the Wharton special?' I said, 'Right here. It's the tongue and bologna sandwich," Koch jokes. There's no doubt about it: Koch could easily serve more customers if he bought pre-sliced meats, cut down on conversation and instituted home delivery. But none of that's the point in a local deli where the friendship between customers and owners is so mutual. When Bob's brother and co-worker Lou passed away in 1989, over 1,500 customers sent letters of condolence. These days, the store is almost always packed with eager customers. The wait for a sandwich can last upwards of an hour. "It's like a house party, with the music on and everyone hanging out and talking," Smith says. Koch further enlivens the atmosphere by cracking jokes and handing out samples to those in line. "Hairstyles and clothing change, but people don't," Koch says. "The Penn students are more career-oriented, but they're fun like they always were. I still get invited to all the parties."Comments powered by Disqus
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