Smallman St. Deli: ‘The way it used to be’

by Patrick Higgins

Walk into the Smallman Street Deli on Murray Avenue and you’ll be greeted by a barrage of sights, smells and sounds that will most assuredly make your mouth water. There’s a deli counter showcasing dozens of sandwiches, deli items and other edibles, along with a glass counter stocked with freshly prepared foods, and above it is a blackboard wrapping all the way around the wall listing hot-off-the-grill menu items. If you need something to wash down your sandwich of choice, there’s a row of fridges on the wall offering seasonal and locally crafted beers. In short, the Smallman Street Deli has it all.

Owners Bill Wedner and Jeff Cohen are business partners of 18 years, and they’ve managed to build a premium establishment in the heart of Squirrel Hill committed to providing New York style deli “the way it used to be.” Here, patrons can enjoy the company of neighbors and friends at an eatery that prides itself on the strength and quality of its product. There’s a plethora of tables for two and 10, and even an outdoor dining area.


At the Smallman Street Deli, food is always freshly prepared.
Photo by Julian Routh

If you walk in on a Sunday morning for a sit-down brunch, you’ll likely spot an elderly gentleman sporting a Pirates hat sitting by himself. His name is Ben Margolin, and he’s been a regular at the deli on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings since it opened eight years ago, in September 2005.

Ben is a creature of habit, and he keeps it simple with an egg beater omelet and a fruit cup on Sunday mornings and stuffed cabbage on Saturday nights. He says he’s come to know owners Jeff Cohen and Bill Wedner well.

Cohen and Wedner have owned Weiss Provision Company, the wholesale end of the business that manufactures the meats, since 1995. They opened a deli on Smallman Street in the Strip District, where they cut and manufacture all their meat, five years before they expanded the business to Squirrel Hill.



According to Wedner, the nature of the neighborhood piqued their interest.

“It was the fact that this area had such a great tradition with delis,” he said. “It was the fact that our deli clearly has a Jewish connotation to it, and this is still the center of Jewish life in Pittsburgh.”

Bill openly admits that he and Jeff are not restaurant experts. With a quick glance at the menu that wraps around half the store, he says that if a restaurant expert visited, he’d “come in and say you’re making this too difficult – cut back, do less.”

But the key to their success lies precisely in the fact that they’ve done more from the start in approaching the business like customers and building a “pretty well-rounded menu,” which Wedner says has been vital to the deli’s success.

“We produce most of our own product. We control everything about that product,” he says. “We knew that we could put out better product, better sandwiches, better take-home deli than most other places, and we stand on the strength of our product.”

And if it’s the strength of their product that Bill and Jeff take the most pride in, the people of Squirrel Hill have noticed.

Ben, the longtime regular, asserts that “the food is decent, the staff is very helpful,” and estimates that “close to half of Squirrel Hill comes in here on any given day, usually on the weekends.” He even goes so far as to label it “the only bona-fide deli in the area.”

Wedner has always been a part of the Squirrel Hill community. He grew up five blocks from the location on Murray Avenue,

went to Taylor Allderdice High School and then spent his college years at Pitt. His familiarity with the neighborhood and the people who live there has helped him build a thriving meeting place for not only the Jewish community, but those who have found Squirrel Hill an excellent place to live.

“We’re certainly here to service the Jewish community – make no mistake about that,” he says. “We have all the traditional favorites – we make a lot of the things that people don’t make anymore, or forgot, or were family recipes that got lost through time. The Jewish holidays very much focus around food, and they know we’re here and we’re gonna have what they’re looking for for the holidays.”

The deli is not only the place to go if you’re in a pinch hosting family for Rosh Hoshanah or Yom Kippur; it’s the place to go to grab a meal, cater a party or simply stock your fridge — the deli stays open 365 days a year. The student crowd tends to gravitate toward the deli as well, and Wedner says Squirrel Hill is home to a “very large contingent of young people that are very focused on the food scene and fresh food that’s made well.”

According to Jeff, the goal from the start has always been “trying to get people good quality food and service coming in all the same time. We try and make sure they get their money’s worth. It’s quality food [and] good friendly service.”

It’s obvious that the staff of the Smallman Street Deli enjoys working, and this stems, in part, from the fact that Bill and Jeff are often present. On a Sunday afternoon, you can find the two working alongside their employees, keeping the kitchen running smoothly and making sure catering deliveries get out the door on time.

“Part of what we feel our success is that we’re constantly trying to do more, not less,”

Wedner says. “That’s what keeps us going. Our customers know that – they see an owner there. They see we’re involved, [that] we’re very hands on.”

This mindset places the customer above all else, and is certainly a facet of the business that keeps residents coming back. The proof resides in the fact that Smallman Street Deli is still thriving when other delis have failed on the same block; Murray Avenue is highly competitive real estate that boasts quite a few eateries.

“We take pride in the fact that we have so many loyal repeat customers,” says Bill. “They’re here in the community. It doesn’t matter the weather, they know we’re gonna be here. That’s really what this neighborhood is all about.”