One Last Slice of Bobby Koch

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His deli served up cold cuts and warm memories.

By Stephen Fried

As I read Bobby Koch’s obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer on an August morning, I thought back to a day only two years ago, when he made me the last best sandwich I will ever eat.

It was a sunny September afternoon—a real back-to-school kind of day, even for someone who hasn’t been in school for over 20 years—and I was going to Koch’s for the first time in a long time. I didn’t know what to expect, because the place had just re-opened after being closed for nearly six months—ever since Bobby Koch and his most recent pet Corvette had been totaled by some light-running idiot at 48th and Walnut.

After a month in the hospital, Bobby came back home and only weeks later his mom, Frances, whose big heart and bigger hair some of us remember so well, died at the age of 82. When I read about this disharmonic convergence in the paper, I worried what it would mean for the beloved standing-room-only takeout deli. I mean, how many blows can a tiny family business withstand? Even a family business like Koch’s, which over the years has adopted so many hundreds of Penn students into its extended family?

I have always marveled as Bobby Koch somehow maintained the great food and good humor through his father’s death and his mother’s health setbacks in the Eighties, and then the stunning loss of his kid brother and counterpart, Louis, that angel in an apron, in 1995. But as I approach the familiarly frayed awning, I have to wonder: Can Koch’s survive yet another blow?

The reason this was important went well beyond all the sandwiches there. Like many Penn grads, I had always considered Koch’s a major touchstone in my life. It was the only thing left of my college days that remained exactly the way it was when I graduated in 1979—proving that in certain rare instances you actually can go home again (and the food can still be great.) I was a Koch’s regular as an undergraduate, culminating in my 21st birthday party in High Rise North, which I “catered” by applying festively colored toothpicks to food brought in from the culinary capitals of my world: Koch’s, Pat’s, and Walt’s. Unlike most students, however, I actually went to Koch’s even more after graduating, since my Penn mentor, the legendary English professor Nora Magid, and my post-college girlfriend (also legendary, but let’s not get into that), lived next door to each other on 43rd Street, just a half-block from the shop. Every time I walked in, I’d see the old “more food for less bread” sign, and then I’d subtly scan the side wall of clippings, to see if anything written by me or one of my 34th Street cronies was still hanging there. (Ultimately, all our brilliant insights were papered over with the articles and letters of those who came after us at Penn, equally convinced of the brilliance and originality of their insights.)

Bobby would always look up from slicing to yell a hello and launch into yet another off-color joke—this is a man who has never said, or even thought, the words “stop me if you’ve heard this one.” When he finished, a roomful of hungry eyes would roll, and Lewis would just shrug his shoulders and give that oh-my-brother grin. And then, like everyone else, I would stand and wait: 10, 15, 20 minutes, entertained only by the cold-cuts between the Brothers Koch and the occasional free slice of cheese or meat from a slice of waxed paper passed through the crowd. And the line never seemed to get shorter. Since the door always had to be closed, and nobody wanted to wait outside, people just kept jamming in, like one of Bobby’s bad “how many Penn students can you get into a phone booth” jokes. It was a fair amount of discomfort to endure for comfort food. And it was always worth it.

I peered into the window that afternoon two years ago, worried what I might, or might not, see inside. Instead, I realized that I couldn’t see inside. The place was that packed. I squeezed in through the front door, and all was as it had been, as it should be. Bobby was at the front slicer. He saw me, grinned broadly under his walrusy moustache and extended his left hand to shake, because he still couldn’t lift the right one up very far. We immediately started talking about what he had been through, a fairly private and revealing conversation which we had in front of two-dozen other people I’d never met before, but somehow knew because they were in line with me at Koch’s.

Even though I hadn’t been there in a year or two, and hadn’t been a regular for more than a decade, Bobby still remembered my sandwich order, and when it was my turn, he started building me a Drexel Special hoagie without even asking. While we talked, a middle-aged man peered through the front window. Bobby saw him, and told me exactly what the guy would say when he got in the door, because his greeting to Koch’s had grown as predictable as Norm’s welcome at Cheers. Bobby leaned in so he could gloat when proven right.

But he was wrong. The guy waved off Bobby’s schmoozy smile.

“I can’t stay,” he said. “I just came by to make sure you were still alive.”

It was unclear if he was talking about Bobby, or about Koch’s itself. But either way, on that perfect fall day, the answer was yes.

Bobby Koch died on August 8 at the age of 58, when his very big heart finally gave out. He is survived by his wife of four years, his brother Barry, two stepchildren, four step-grandchildren, and a hungry, grateful nation of Penn alums. 

Stephen Fried C’79 is an award-winning investigative journalist and essayist, and the author of Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel GiaBitter Pills; and The New Rabbi—excerpted in the Gazette [“Coming to Terms,” September/October 2002]. An adjunct professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, he is currently at work on a new book for Bantam and writes the monthly “Heart of a Husband” column for Ladies Home Journal.

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