RIP Bill Carl, Founder of Carl's Deli — and Maker of St. Louis' Best Pastrami


Carl's Deli serves a legendary pastrami. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Carl's Deli serves a legendary pastrami.

For many St. Louisans, the passing of William "Bill" Carl, the founder of Carl’s Deli (6401 Clayton Road, Clayton; 314-721-2393), meant the loss of a beloved figure in the city’s food scene. For the deli’s current owner, Matt Lewis, it was the loss of his second father.

“I started working for him when I was in high school, and I still remember my first customer,” recalls Lewis. “He gave me his order, but because it was my first day, I turned around and completely blanked. He started yelling at me, and Bill jumped right in and smoothed it all over and took the brunt of it for me. He was like that with everyone. He just treated you like family.”

Bill Carl died February 1, at the age of 92, under hospice care at the Village Shalom skilled nursing facility in Overland Park, Kansas. He is survived by his daughter Sherry Lipshitz, sons Rick and Larry Carl and stepdaughter Jai'lynn Hayman.

Carl's legacy is enshrined in the Demun neighborhood mainstay, but the deli's roots go back even further. His parents opened the delicatessen's first iteration in the Delmar Loop in 1947, and there Carl and his brother Jack learned the tricks of the trade. When their parents retired, Jack went on to open Two Cents Plain deli in downtown St. Louis, while older brother Bill moved the deli to its current home on Clayton Road in 1969.

There, he gained a reputation for his signature hot pastrami sandwich, what many consider to be the closest thing to the quintessential New York deli staple in town. No one disputed the primacy of his peppery pastrami — except maybe his brother.

"Bill and Jack would call each other at their delis every day," says Lewis. "They'd ask each other how business was, then would give each other grief in a friendly, sibling rivalry sort of way. They were so opposite. Jack was like the 'Soup Nazi' character on Seinfeld, always razzing his customers and skipping over people if they were taking too long. Bill, though, was so warm and kind to everyone who walked through the front door. He took his time with everybody."

Bill Carl's passing is truly the end of an era; Jack Carl died in 2015, and Two Cents Plain has long since closed. But Carl's spirit lives on in his namesake deli.

The pastrami may have been what first brought people into the deli, but Carl's warmth kept them coming back. No matter who you were or how much you spent, Lewis explains, Carl always treated you with respect.

"In the eulogy, his son told a story that says a lot about who Bill was," says Lewis. "He recalled how Bill Bidwell, the former owner of the [football] Cardinals, would come in all of the time, and he'd always order a turkey sandwich. It was the cheapest thing on the menu, so he asked his dad why he was so nice to him — he had all this money but he orders the cheapest thing. Bill said, 'Son, he could go anywhere today, but he chooses us.' That's just how he was. He treated everyone the same."

Carl's kindness extended to his employees, who he made sure always had a job when they came back from college on break. "He'd always make sure there was a place for you," Lewis says.

That loyalty is what made Lewis stick with Carl for years — and it factored into his decision to take over the deli when Carl decided to retire.

"I was going for a job interview, and Bill said not to accept anything before he had a chance to talk to me," recalls Lewis. "He told me he was getting ready to retire and he wanted me to take over the deli for him. I was his right-hand man, so it just made sense. In 2002, I took it over."

Carl's daughter, Sherry Lipshitz, says that the family could not have been happier that Lewis took over the deli for their father. "Since both of my brothers live out of town, we were more than please that the shop went to Matt Lewis, who truly learned the deli business working side by side with my father."

Carl may have turned over the daily operations to Lewis, but he didn't let that stop him from regularly checking in to see what the price of pastrami was, or how business was going. And he always made sure to give Lewis some fatherly advice whenever he called.

"He'd say, "Matt, are you putting money away for retirement? You can't work forever," says Lewis. "You have to make sure you're able to retire early. I waited too long. I want you to enjoy it."

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