Just five weeks after a fire ripped through Hobby's Deli in Newark, the landmark downtown eatery fully reopened for business, proving that if you rebuild it, they will come.
"It's not a celebration - it's a relief," said Marc Brummer, co-owner of Hobby's, as he walked around attending to customers on Tuesday when the dining room reopened after a blaze burned the dining room and bar early last month.
"There are a lot of moving parts to run a deli, and it takes a gargantuan effort to maintain the quality. It's a good cocktail of stubbornness, nerves and will. We're open. We're still here."
The effort to keep Hobby's alive was immediately evident after the fire destroyed the main dinning room. The deli was taking pickup and delivery orders less than 48 hours after the fire, giving regulars a chance to show their support and keep those who serve the chicken soup employed.
"I thought I was going to be unemployed after the fire, but they took us to work in the front, where they didn't really need us," said Kim Mortimer, a waitress who works in the dining room. "I'm very appreciative that they did that. They looked out for us."
The dining room looks somewhat different after the fire. The brown back walls are bare. The New Jersey Devils regalia, press clippings, family photos, American flag and momentos of the deli's Operation Salami Drop to U.S. troops overseas are temporarily removed.
The future of the deli's bar, which suffered heavy damage, remains uncertain. Also undetermined is the fate of the damaged classic neon sign out front, an authentic time-worn totem recently re-lit during the filming "The Many Saints of Newark," a prequel to the acclaimed HBO television series "The Sopranos."
But Marc Brummer, keeping his eyes peeled on the pastrami platters passing by, made his priorities plain.
"Right now, it's about getting the place open," Brummer said. "We need a plan for the rest."
A survey around the dining room indicated that the unique mix of people who eat at Hobby's plan to keep coming.
"We were very grateful that nobody was hurt and that the community made it better than it would have been otherwise," said Suzanne Klar, Brummer's wife and a PSEG employee. "Hobby's has never been just a deli. It cares about the community, and the community cares right back."
Several customers noted how Marc and his brother Michael have become a second family to them over the years. Other Hobby's regulars noted that the deli is about something beyond blood, even beyond brisket.
"Hobby's is a vital organ in the body of Newark. It fulfills both a contemporary need to feed people, but it is also a connection to Newark's recent historical past," said attorney Henry Klingeman, sitting with his wife Nancy and daughter Josie next to one of the bowls of pickles placed on every table.
"Hobby's was here before [the riot of] 1967. It stayed, it persevered, and it hung in with all the people in Newark who were struggling during those decades," Klingeman said. "I think both the people who come to Newark everyday, and the people who live here and work here, appreciate that."
"I never left," said attorney Philip Ross, a former Seton Hall law professor who has an office downtown. "I come here two or three times a week. And I'll keep coming. I love these guys."
"We came here for the first time just before the fire," said Alberto Gutierrez, sitting with Iris Hernandez, who both live in Newark. "The soup is great. The pickles are great. At that big guy Marc over there walks around checking on the customers all the time. You should be in contact with the people that your serve. Not everybody does that."
Amidst the clatter and chatter of the lunchtime rush, Michael Brummer remembered his father, Samuel, who took over the restaurant in 1962. He reflected on the raison d'être of Hobby's, and on the fact that it takes more than a fire to keep a good deli down.
"This is what delis do. Maybe you give someone a sandwich. Maybe you give them a job. You help out. You give back," said Michael, pausing while he took another takeout order. "People we never even did business with before bought food just to support us. It brought tears to our eyes. It feels really good to know that when things were down, people came to help us. What we do is worth it."