Hobby's Delicatessen & Restaurant, currently run by Tenafly's Michael Brummer and his brother, Marc, has been a Newark landmark for 50 years. That's 50 years of Jewish deli tradition – homemade matzo ball soup, corned beef cured in the basement, and lots and lots of salami sandwiches.
And while tastes and the landscape have changed, Hobby's still stands for the type of attentive service – and darn good food – you'd expect of a half-century-old institution.
In 1962, Sam Brummer bought his way into a partnership at Hobby's, a foundering deli at the corner of Branford Place and Halsey Street. The Polish immigrant had left his home and moved to Newark a few months before Hitler invaded Poland. Sam worked at, owned and opened a string of delis before and after serving in World War II, including Kartzmann's in Newark.
Sam left Kartzmann and essentially took over Hobby's, completely turning the business around. Michael says his father spearheaded a massive renovation and a move to higher quality meats and staff, while expanding hours until 1 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends.
As the city around it enjoyed its heyday, Hobby's earned its reputation for excellent food and fine company. Theatergoers dined while dressed to the nines, and famous faces flocked there – The Three Stooges, Michael says, ate at Hobby's whenever they performed in Newark.
When he was 13, Michael started working at Hobby's, mainly during school breaks. He went off to college at Franklin & Marshall in Lancaster, Pa., returning again and again to help out at the deli.
"I grew up here," Michael says.
He flirted briefly with the retail world – Michael jokes that he "had a cup of coffee at Macy's and that was about it" – before joining the deli full-time in 1998. Michael and Marc bought out their dad's partner, and later Sam's remaining share, to run the deli themselves. But that doesn't stop their dad, now 89, from showing up on a regular basis.
Sam isn't the only fixture remaining at Hobby's. A fire in 1992 necessitated some minor renovations, but beyond that, the deli appears largely the same as it did in the '60s. Michael says customers from decades ago visit to find a familiar old haunt.
"People walk in the door," he says, "and it brings them back to old Newark. We enjoy that."
Despite the constancy of the décor, of the service and of the quality of the food at Hobby's, plenty more has changed than just its owners.
Michael can recall when Macy's and a stream of other businesses left Newark in the late '80s. He said his dad found himself stepping on crack vials on the way to work and people were afraid to go the Hobby's side of Branford Place.
"We always did business," Michael says, but Sam seriously considered shuttering his dining rooms and making Hobby's a catering business.
But Newark started improving again in the late '90s, Michael says. The construction of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which opened in 1997, heralded something of a rebirth for the area. Businesses returned, Prudential started moving employees back to the area and law firms took root everywhere. A stronger police presence and even simple things like brand new street signs made a difference.
"Everything just kind of started lifting," Michael says. "Things just started improving."
Now Newark boasts new restaurants and the construction of new hotels and corporate headquarters, including that of Panasonic at the corner of Raymond Boulevard and McCarter Highway. And now that the New Jersey Devils have made the Prudential Center their home ice, Michael says "the place is just second to none."
All that extra business doesn't hurt, of course. During the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals, when the Devils played (and lost to) the L.A. Kings, Hobby's saw 150 to 200 customers between 5:30 and 7:30 on game nights.
"It was absolutely bedlam," Michael says. "It was all hands on deck."
As the face of Newark has changed over the decades, so have diners' palates – and the Brummers "are always striving to be better," Michael says.
About seven years ago, Michael and Marc switched to all prime meats, though they still cure their own corned beef (and tongue) in stainless steel bins. And some deli standards just don't sell these days – bologna is a thing of the past, and they only stock salami because they're famous for sending tons of the stuff (about 30 tons to date) to U.S. troops in Afghanistan as part of their Operation: Salami Drop initiative.
"So you look to keep things fresh," Michael says. "We're constantly discussing what we can do."
Nowadays, their chef, who is Egyptian, makes hummus from scratch. And chicken, which Hobby's didn't even stock 15 years ago, is one of their top sellers, particularly in a sandwich with avocado, roasted peppers and fresh mozzarella. Another popular invention is a turkey wrap with gravy, carrots and cranberries.
"It has to have our little stamp [of approval] on it," Michael says, "which makes it a Hobby's item."
But through all the changes and the ups and downs, Hobby's is in the Brummers' blood.
"Every day is something different," Michael says. He gets to meet all sorts – long-ago diners revisiting an old favorite, travelers on extended layovers at Newark International Airport, random stop-ins who found the place on Yelp.
And for Michael and Marc, working for years, even decades, with Sam was the chance of a lifetime.
"People don't know their father like I know my father," Michael says. "It's something that I wouldn't trade for anything.
"If I could do anything else," he says, "would I do it? The answer's no."