MILLBURN, NJ - Millburn Deli has been a destination of choice for hungry townies for many decades. From the traditional Sloppy Joe, to the horn-honking Gobbler, to the Godfather, Gossip Girl, and Chicken Soprano among any combination imaginable, the Deli is where to go for lunch in Millburn.
Take a number, wade through the crowds, and be greeted by the fun-loving and efficient staff, most of who have been working at the deli for years and years. See high school seniors running over for a quick lunch, returnees on college vacations craving the food mama fed them, women nibbling on their salad diets, the business folks munching on hearty sandwiches to last until dinner. The outdoor tables are packed in the warmer weather and the deli welcomes diners in a side dining area.
Run into your neighbor, your Mah Jong partner, your golf nemesis, your child’s first grade teacher, the local soccer coach, the kids your kid graduated MHS with, your mom, your dad. Reunions of graduates of MHS from years ago reminisce over platters of long dreamed- about sloppy joes.
The Deli is owned and managed by the triumvirate of Ron and Diana Fluke and their son Andrew. They bought the Deli in 1991 when Andrew was 12-years-old. The original Millburn Deli was opened in 1946 by Norbert Jacobs who eventually sold it to his son Terry. Residents growing up in the years before the Flukes bought the Deli, remember the old Deli – more of a grocery store with aisles that led to the sandwich counter at the back of the store. Regardless of the Deli’s configuration, it has long featured the famous sloppy joe, a triple layered sandwich of thin rye breach containing cole slaw, russian dressing, meat of your choice, and swiss cheese. There is quite a historical dispute as to who invented this version of the sloppy joe. Ron Fluke concedes that the Millburn Deli did not create the first sloppy joe. He is uncertain about the claims of a deli in South Orange that has made the claim. According to lore, the Mayor of South Orange traveled to a pre-Castro Cuba and encountered a restaurant called “Sloppy Joes.” He then returned to the Towne Deli in South Orange and asked the owners to make the sloppy joe. However, Ron and Diana Fluke traveled to Cuba two years ago and learned that the owner of the Sloppy Joes in Cuba had fled Cuba when Castro took over and went to Key West where the owner opened a bar also called Sloppy Joes. Interestingly, the Flukes had gone to the Key West Sloppy Joes 10 years ago and there they were served sloppy joes–but not the New Jersey version. Instead, it was the more common type of ground beef. In fact, Ron Fluke declares that old menus from the pre-Castro Cuba describe sloppy joes as containing ground beef.
When the Flukes purchased the deli in 1991, they closed it for three weeks and gutted it. It now has a different flow and is brighter. Originally, all sandwiches had butter. However, responding to customers’ concerns about healthy living, butter is added only upon request. Ron Fluke explains that “butter got a bad rap.”
The sloppy joe – in all its combinations – remains the most popular deli sandwich, followed by the Godfather. The Flukes all think of new ideas for sandwiches but are receptive to suggestions from customers. In fact, the idea for the Godfather came from a former Millburn eighth grader. There have been “several ideas that are duds,” most notably, the Dixie Chick – a sandwich of fried chicken with barbeque sauce, sweet cole slaw and sweet pickles on a brioche. It often takes time for a new sandwich to take off.
The deli is notable for its long-time employees. The Flukes explain that they are looking for people who don’t view the position as a temporary gig but rather see their work there as a career. Employment at the deli is only on a full-time basis with retirement and health plans provided. The Flukes state that working at the Deli is “sink-or-swim;” they only hire workers who have prior experience and provide training during an initial period to see if the employee can handle the volume of customers and keep to the speed of service the deli provides.
One out of approximately 15 candidates are chosen after the initial period of work. The deli has a system where one employee works in the back gathering ingredients and brings them to the person taking and making the order. That way, the counter people do not have to leave their position.
Habitual deli customers are well aware that an order of a Gobbler – a Thanksgiving meal with turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing on a sandwich – is greeted with loud honking and other hoopla. The Flukes explain that the genesis of this beloved or dreaded commotion was in the days before the deli served hot food. Only a microwave was used to warm up the stuffing and when a telephone order was received for a Gobbler, the employee taking the order would shout to the person manning the microwave to heat up the stuffing. Well, the microwave was on the other end of the counter so it was often difficult to hear the request. Hence, the honking, etc became the optimal way of communicating the request. And so a tradition began.
The Flukes welcome students to the deli and during lunch hour the deli is flooded with seniors who can leave the high school campus. Ron Fluke states that the students often build momentum for new sandwiches. Each year, students have one sandwich which is their favorite. In anticipation of camp visiting day, the deli is packed with parents bringing their kids’ favorites on the trip to camp.
The Flukes all love the town and the customers who return time and again to the deli. Diana Fluke states that she works so hard there she doesn’t often realize the popularity of her family’s enterprise. Andrew Fluke also gets lost in the day-to-day work until something or someone brings home the wide appeal of the deli. Once he was in the parking lot at Rutgers in New Brunswick, from which he graduated, and a stranger shouted at him “Gobbler.” A friend related his experience to Andrew that when the friend was in India he met someone who upon learning that the friend was from West Orange, asked if he was familiar with the Millburn Deli. And in New Orleans, a friend of Andrews saw someone wearing the Millburn Deli tee shirt.
Diner Benjamin D’Alessio, a 2009 graduate of MHS, was enjoying his turkey and roast beef sloppy joe at the outdoor seating in front of the deli. He declared that the deli’s sloppy joe is “the only sloppy joe I have dreamt about.” Laurie Levy, who grew up in Millburn and her husband Jeff were dining in the deli’s indoor seating room. Laurie proclaimed that the deli is a “class act – good food, fun people, and a warm, inviting room to eat and talk in.” Ron Fluke says that although he sometimes gives customers a hard time, he loves that they come in.