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The Philadelphia Jews that popularized the hot dog

Before Philadelphia’s Society Hill became the upscale neighborhood it is today, the area was known as Philadelphia’s Jewish Quarter.

Also encompassing parts of Queen Village, the Jewish community formed a backbone along South Street, called “the great Street for Polish Jews and huckstering of every variety.”

South Street looking East from 5th Street, 1930

Ending up here after being sent to America from Lithuania at the age of fourteen, Abraham “Abe” Levis (pronounced like Clevis) was evading a draft into wartime service. He married Anna Solo and together in 1895 the two opened a sandwich shop in the South Street business district. To the partnership Solo brought the recipe for hot dogs and fish cakes that proved to be key to Levis’ original taste.

When Abe and Anna began serving the hot dog, a nickel would buy three of these bread-and-meat combinations (the Levis position is that these are distinct from sandwiches, by the way). Family lore says that Anna had the idea of putting frankfurters onto Parker House rolls, and Abe took the initiative to order longer custom-baked rolls that better fit the sausages.

The Levis family moved into the 507 S. 6th Street location in 1908 when the couple purchased the building and one next door for $12,500 from Nathan Snellenburger. According to the Inquirer report, the lot measured 20′ by 120.5′.

The signature Levis combination of hot dog and fish cake on a bun would prove immensely popular, and the shop likely reached 100 million served far before McDonald’s! The fish cake recipe would become so indispensable that by 1970 it was a corporate secret guarded by Price Waterhouse.

Abe Levis also developed a carbonated soda known originally as Champaign Cherry, served out of the same marble soda fountain for decades. When the Phillies won the National League Championship in 1950 the name was shortened to Champ Cherry as a commemoration. Served originally for a cent a glass, the “wine-like brew” was said to have a cider taste.

In 2012 a food blogger visited the Levis outpost in Abington. Today the brand is owned by Elliott Hirsh.

The Levis’ lunch stand rode a trend not just in Philly but nationally as well. At the time frankfurters and lunch carts were proliferating across the country, especially where young people and working people congregated. As you can see in this 1893 clipping from the Philadelphia Inquirer, the carts were originally positioned as temperance aides:

Abe was a visionary and hard task-master. Constantly smoking large cigars, Abe had 10 Rules of Behavior posted to the wall. The full list has not survived but rule #10 is said to have been: “Talk less, eat and drink more.” A better six words Hemingway couldn’t write.

Much of the research in this article comes from a 1970 profile of Abe’s twin daughters Phyllis and Gladys.

Abe identified the promise of cinema early after its introduction and situated a screen on his roof so folks gathered in the Starr Garden could view silent movies. He also purchased several nickelodeons.

An 1892 drawing of Starr Garden, originally consisting of 0.115 acres from an 1889 donation by one Miss Halliwell.

The shop gained an immense amount of foot traffic situated along the trolley line, and trolley drivers were known to make unofficial stops at the eating joint.

Did Abraham Levis invent the hot dog? Probably not. In all likelihood the tradition of sausage wrapped with bread emerged from working German immigrants spread throughout the region. But Levis did have a huge role in popularizing the food and putting his new American spin on the meal.

Today the building is undergoing renovations. Most recently it had housed Blackbird Pizzeria. Philadelphia landlord Brian Barrabee owns the building.

Old Original Levis no longer operates any locations and the soda brand is also currently dormant. Learn more about Champ Cherry here and see more about Levis on their website.

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