Monday, November 9, 2015

Wolfie's: memories of good and plenty and ...


By Jane Feehan

During the 1960s, before malls became popular high school hangouts in Fort Lauderdale, Wolfie’s Restaurant on Sunrise Boulevard was the place to be seen. The deli was a winner among all ages with its overflowing bowls of tiny breakfast Danish, mouth puckering dill pickles and crunchy coleslaw, overstuffed pastrami sandwiches and creamy New York cheesecake. 

For those of us who spend a lot of time in Fort Lauderdale, the restaurant’s demise is but one of many markers on the road of long gone and forgotten … until someone who moved away while it was still open asks “whatever happened to Wolfie’s?” A Publix now sits near that once-hallowed spot.

Wolfie’s history is complicated—except for its beginning. In the beginning was Wilford or “Wolfie” Cohen. He got his start in the restaurant biz working as a kid in the Catskills. He came to Miami Beach during  the late 1930s and bought Al’s Sandwich Shop at 23rd Street and Collins. He made it a popular place—one that Al Jolson and Milton Berle visited. Customers seeking a glimpse of celebrities and a good meal flocked to Cohen’s restaurant.

But Cohen set his sights on a larger empire. He sold his place (with Wolfie's name rights) at four times what he paid for it to Meyer Yedlin in 1948.  Wolfie opened another winner, Pumpernick’s, in the 1940s and sold it in 1955, according to a Miami News obituary.  When Cohen died at 74 in 1986, he had also owned the Bull Pen, Mr. Mahzik, and the Rascal House (restaurant names should be unforgettable he once said). At the time of his death, he owned only the *Rascal House, which he left to his daughter actress Robin Sherwood. (Sherwood appeared in Brian de Palma’s Blow Out, in Death Wish II opposite Charles Bronson and in other films.)

Meyer Yedlin opened Wolfie’s in two Miami locations, at Lincoln Road and Collins Avenue and another at 163rd Street in North Miami Beach. He also opened one in St. Petersburg in 1953 (sold it in 1955) with partners and incorporated Fort Lauderdale Wolfie’s in 1958.  Joseph Sloane, a partner in the St. Petersburg venture, was also listed as owner of the Fort Lauderdale Wolfie’s. As I said, this ownership history gets complicated.

As tourism grew in South Florida so did the national reputation of Wolfie’s, especially among New Yorkers. In 1961, a U.S. Appeals Court ruled that the Wolfie’s name could not be used by a deli in Brooklyn; only the two restaurants in Miami had rights. The Brooklyn partners claimed they did not steal the name; “Wolfie” was a nickname earned by one of them for a reputation as a ladies’ man. The judge didn’t buy it.  Yedlin (who died about 1960) or his relatives had their hands in various Wolfie’s, thus the permitted use of the name at some other locations.

In 1968, during the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Chef Craig Claiborne wrote in The New York Times that Wolfie’s, open 24/7, was worth a visit but to conventioneers he recommended the breakfast spread at Pumpernick’s, by that time out of Wolfie Cohen’s hands.

Long after Wolfie’s closed in Fort Lauderdale—the corporation involuntarily dissolved in 1984—it was announced that Wolfie’s Deli Express was set to open a number of franchises in South Florida. I’m not sure about the genesis of this corporation or whether it was even related to the Wolfie’s we all knew and loved.  In 1998, the president of the company claimed this was to be the “biggest news” in franchising since McDonald’s. Anybody hear of it?

In 2002 Wolfie’s closed on 21st Street in Miami Beach. The last owner of the one on Lincoln Road was Samuel Kaye who died in 2012, but I'm not sure when that Wolfie's shut its doors; the same fate was dealt the restaurant on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. International residents and exotic palates have replaced the taste for Jewish borscht, bagels, lox and cheesecake but not the fond memories woven into Fort Lauderdale and Miami history.  And it all began with Wolfie Cohen ...  Copyright 2015. Jane Feehan
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*Rascal’s closed in 2008, and is currently the site of Epicure Market.

Sources:
St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 18, 1953
Miami News, Sept. 21, 1958
The Reading Eagle, Feb. 13, 1959
The New York Times, Jan. 22, 1961
The New York Times, June 10, 1961
Evening Independent, Aug. 13, 1964
Miami News, Oct. 7, 1986
Schenectady Gazette, Jul. 3, 1987
Boca Raton News, June 3, 1998

Tags: Wolfie's, Wolfie Cohen, Fort Lauderdale restaurants in the 1960s, Miami Beach deli restaurants


4 comments:

  1. Dear Ms. Feehan,

    As the son of Wolfie Cohen, I thank you for the above story, the one on the Havana Riviera, and others that I have found on your website. Your story on Wolfie's is more accurate than most but not perfect. And, I could add lots of details on Wolfie and Miami Beach. One error is that the Rascal House had numerous owners including aunts, uncles, and cousins. My sister and I were the largest owners but we did not inherit anything when my father died as he had long before sold or given away his shares to me, my sister, or other family members (and to a few key long term employees). He was a quietly but immensely generous man.

    My first memory in life is from Wolfie's with my mother feeding me. I helped name Pumpernik's when, as a very young child, I asked my dad to read me a story about Uncle Pumpernickel, and I did some management and oversight of the Rascal House (and the building). Maybe because of my MBA from the University of Chicago, I appreciate that those restaurants were some of the most impressively designed and management businesses in the world.

    As to the Havana Riviera, Wolfie provided expertise, for free as always, to Meyer on the kitchen design. I visited Cuba with him several times even though I was only 6 or 7 years old. You could already hear the gun fights in the mountains.
    Sincerely,
    Lewis Zachary Cohen

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Mr. Cohen. Your family's legacy is firmly woven into the history of South Florida.

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    2. I used a number of newspapers to put this history together, but there is no source better than the actual participants, as are you. Thank you!

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    3. Mr. Cohen: Could you email me at janethescribe@gmail.com? Someone related to the Lansky family would like to establish contact with you. He sent me his number and email and would like to speak with you.

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