With Washington’s Jewish population growing and the economy booming in 1925, a newcomer from Massachusetts named Sam Wagshal opened a delicatessen at 9th and G Streets, NW. Wagshal’s fare was what you might expect at any Jewish deli: corned beef, pastrami, chopped liver and the like. In the midst of the Great Depression, Wagshal’s moved to 18th Street and Columbia Road, and, soon after, in 1939, to its present location at 49th Street and Massachusetts Avenue in upper northwest DC.
There, in the suburbs-like Spring Valley neighborhood, which maintained notoriously restrictive housing codes to keep Jews and other minorities from living there, locals clamored for this Jewish deli. For generations, many of Washington’s foremost citizens have been regulars: Alice Roosevelt Longworth regularly stopped in to pick up pâté de foie gras and a snack for her chauffeur. Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge played cards with Sam Wagshal in the deli after closing on Friday nights. Other justices who were regular customers included Felix Frankfurter, William Douglas and William Brennan. J. Edgar Hoover loved the corned beef and ice cream. Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush were customers, as were defeated candidates Barry Goldwater and George McGovern.
When Sam retired, his son Ben took over the business and, with his wife Lillian, continued his father’s practice of nurturing relationships with customers, including handing out cookies to neighborhood kids. Richard Nixon knew the Wagshals well, and in 1970, he invited them to the White House for a Sunday-morning worship service.
Wagshal’s was the first business to get a liquor license in DC after Prohibition was repealed and often delivered food to the White House beginning with the Kennedy administration through the first Bush administration.
Ninety years after Wagshal’s opened, the business is still going strong under the ownership of Bill Fuchs, who bought the deli from Ben Wagshal in 1990.
“I started as a customer,” Fuchs said in his office just off the production kitchen. “I had many years of experience in food service and pretty soon, I started bugging Mr. Wagshal about selling. We hit it off pretty well because he was looking for someone to be a good steward of his family business. He never compromised his standards.
“It’s comforting what a business can mean to a neighborhood,” Fuchs added. “During a big snowstorm in the 1990s, I was determined to open. You couldn’t even see Mass Avenue, but [former Senator] Howard Baker walked down 49th Street to Wagshal’s because he knew that we’d be open. We have four generations of families as our customers. People always thank us for still being here. Wagshal’s was part of the fabric of the community. It still is.”
Across from the ultra-modern electronic menu featuring photos of the day’s mouth-watering favorites, two of the deli’s walls are still jammed with black-and-white photos of the powerful patrons of the past. But Wagshal’s most famous memento is too big and bulky for a frame.
“When [George H.W.] Bush 41 was vice president, he would come in regularly,” Fuchs said. “He and Ben had a great rapport. One day, he was wearing a nylon flight jacket and Ben complimented him on it. The vice president told him that an astronaut had taken it up in space and had given it to him. He took the jacket off, gave it to Ben and said, ‘This is yours.’” Bush was president when Wagshal’s changed hands. He called to congratulate Fuchs, dialing the number himself, which he knew by heart.
“I was so scared of screwing something up after I bought the business that I didn’t want to change anything,” Fuchs said. He was so respectful of the Wagshals that he asked Lillian to remain in charge of the deli platters for nearly four years after the sale. He gave Ben a standing invitation to come in and visit with old friends over free coffee.
“We didn’t take credit cards until 1994. We were like the First Bank of Wagshal’s. We accepted 250 checks a day. They used to put ‘Two blocks from Wagshal’s’ in real estate ads.” That’s no longer the case, but there’s still a place for tradition in the Wagshal’s that Fuchs has transformed from a cramped deli into a burgeoning business empire.
In 1995, he opened a European-style market in the same shopping center as the deli. Two years later, Fuchs added a cavernous kitchen and administrative offices in a building across the back alley from the deli and the market.
Additionally, a catering sideline led to additional Wagshal’s locations. Most have closed, with the exception of one on New Mexico Avenue. Other products include a line of waters, preserves, frozen meals and hors d’oeuvres, wedding cakes and a meat import business. Fuchs plans to open a small restaurant around the corner from the deli later this year. Other plans are on the horizon.
“We’re a small business that thinks big,” said Fuchs. “Some people do some of the things we do pretty well, but no one does all the things that we do as well. We offer a complete food experience.” The deli itself has itself has morphed into a food emporium with freshly made soups, breads, pastries, gluten-free products and a hot foods bar that features delicacies such as curried goat.
“A delicatessen means delicate eating,” Fuchs explained. “What people think about a delicatessen today is very different than it used to be. A few years ago, the City Paper raved about our phở. They couldn’t believe how authentic it was. We’re constantly using raw materials from the market. My chicken soup tastes different this week than last week because it’s homemade. Some people come in two or three times a week because of our variety. Our business has tripled since 2004. We serve 15,000 people a week.”
Wagshal’s is much larger than the original delicatessen, but remains a business that Sam and Ben Wagshal would love. “I’ve worked for a lot of people, and there’s no one better than Bill,” said head butcher Pam Ginsberg, one of many long-time Wagshal’s employees who benefit from the pension plan that Fuchs started. “He cares about his people and he puts every dime he makes back in his business to make sure it’s the best it can be. That’s the Wagshal’s way. A lot of people [say], ‘Old man Wagshal would’ve loved what you’ve done here.’ You don’t find places like this anymore.”
Wagshal’s, 202-363-5698, 4855 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC, Monday–Friday 8 am–8 pm, Saturday 9 am–8 pm, Sunday 9 am–6 pm.
Top photo: Wagshal’s owner Bill Fuchs (center) with his sons Brian and Aaron. Courtesy of Wagshal’s.