Saturday, June 15, 2013

past pieces of toronto: shopsy's on spadina avenue

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on May 6, 2012.

Shopsy's, Spadina Avenue north of Dundas Street, 1968. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1567, Series 648, File 246.
To what lengths would loyal customers go to grab a sandwich from Shopsy’s? During a severe snowstorm in the mid-1940s, one man skied over to purchase a pastrami sandwich. Such was the dedication regulars had during the deli’s 60-year run at 295 Spadina Avenue.

The business began in 1921, when Harry and Jenny Shopsowitz opened an ice cream parlour in front of their home on Spadina, just north of Dundas Street. A selection of deli items was soon added, with corned beef based on a family recipe from Poland becoming the specialty of the house. In her novel Basic Black with Pearls, writer Helen Weinzweig depicted the deli during its early years: "In my time it had been a small delicatessen. I remembered Shopsy’s parents. They stood at the steam table from morning to night, pale and patient, wearing long white aprons, their faces moist from the steamer. They were unfailingly benign towards children."

Among the regulars at the Shopsowitz Delicatessen (eventually shortened to Shopsy’s) who later achieved prominence included Honest Ed Mirvish, media and sports mogul Jack Kent Cooke, comedians Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, and Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard. According to Harry and Jenny’s son Israel, Ballard received special treatment as a young man. “When my mother and father were still alive,” Israel told the Star in 1983, “she would bring him a bowl of soup, which was really a family privilege because she only served family.”

Harry and Jenny’s sons originally had no intention to go into the family business. While Israel intended to become a chartered accountant, Sam studied music and played in a number of orchestras. When Harry died in 1945, Israel and Sam, along with their brother Dave, decided they had to help their mother carry on with the deli. The brothers diversified into manufacturing and wholesaling their hot dogs for retail sales, with Sam becoming the company’s mascot—his crowned visage still adorns Shopsy’s products.


It helped the brand’s expansion that Sam never lost his taste for showbiz, frequently bringing stars by the deli. He was known for his practical jokes, for playing the accordion while accompanying violinist/Loblaws president Leon Weinstein, and for serving as the longtime barker for the Variety Club. Sam also backed Broadway shows, with his share of the original production of Man of La Mancha proving lucrative. He bought out Israel, who had mostly remained in the background, in 1969, then sold the company to Lever Brothers two years later. Until his death in 1984, Sam remained a colourful presence in Toronto.

At various times during the deli’s remaining decade on Spadina, either Sam or Israel served as advisors to the new owners. By 1983, the neighbourhood’s changing demographics from a Jewish business district to a Chinese one, along with parking issues, caused management to decide a move was required. In March 1983, it was announced that Shopsy’s would move to Yonge and Front, where it was hoped the deli would attract nearby professionals and office workers. During its last day at 295 Spadina, hundreds of free hot dogs were handed out to passersby, while long-time regulars reminisced inside. “I was here pre-natal,” noted Frank Shuster. “My mother used to come here before I was born. This place is more than a deli. There’s the ambience and the many years of heartburn. There were a lot of friends here and a lot of laughs.”

Sam "Shopsy" Shopsowitz with hatter Sammy Taft, who reportedly ate the last corned beef sandwich served at the Spadina location. Image from the 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4423.

The final corned beef sandwich was served to hatter Sammy Taft (who reputedly inspired the term "hat trick" in hockey), whose business was located next door. It was served by another regular, Metro Police Commissioner and former Toronto mayor Phil Givens. Left behind was a memory book, where patrons were asked to write how long they had been going to Shopsy’s. One person wrote “forever.”

The building was torn down soon after.

Additional material from Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig (Toronto: Anansi, 1980), the March 21, 1983 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the March 9, 1983 and March 22, 1983 editions of the Toronto Star.


Bonus feature: a 1984 ad for Shopsy's products, which would have aired soon after the Spadina location closed. I'll confess that as a kid, I preferred Shopsy's all-beef hot dogs over Schneider's or other brands. I would have been happier receiving a cheese-filled frankfurter (a short-lived Shopsy's item I was addicted to) than the jumbo dog the eager deli dude offers the boy. No financial records exist from the corporate experiment of inserting mini-delis in suburban barbecues.

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