South Bend’s General Deli & Café is packed on a Wednesday a bit after 1 p.m., and not just the dining room; more than a half-dozen employees are scurrying around the back, taking orders, prepping food, making coffee.
The full dining room during the second half of the lunch rush? That’s been typical since the coffee and sandwich spot opened in late June, according to co-owner Paul Kuharic. The hordes of servers and cooks? That’s temporary, as the restaurant trains a few new folks and prepares for the transition from summer to fall.
“We’ve gotten great support from the community so far,” Kuharic said. “There is a definite need for this.”
Kuharic has high hopes the popularity will continue; for him, the General’s as much a passion project as it is a business venture. The first business he and co-owner John Barany planned to open at 609 E. Jefferson Blvd. was a butcher shop. They wanted to give South Bend its first whole animal butchery, establishing a direct link from local farms to consumers. Kuharic and Barany thought the business plan was “bulletproof.”
Banks weren’t so sure.
The partners shifted gears. They’d gotten the building for a song — the former hardware store had changed hands through a land contract at one point but was still owned by the original group — and they figured they could turn it into a unique community meeting place with a little private funding and a lot of hard work.
They looked downstream from the butcher shop. Kuharic said they’d considered adding a deli at some point, and they were interested in smoking their own meats. So they put the cart before the horse.
“There is need for a butcher shop,” Kuharic said. But the corridor on the east side of the river on Jefferson also “needed a common space for people to go that was kind of more relaxed and kind of cool.”
The result is a café with a simple menu of sandwiches, soups, side salads and baked goods, decorated with eclectic artwork and oddball bric-a-brac, including an old phone booth and street signs. Kuharic, who teaches ceramics at St. Joseph High School, has brought his own artistic sensibility to the space, not to mention his own collection. “A lot of this stuff was just in my basement,” he said. “I’m not a snob. I just know what I like.”
The General’s lineup of sandwiches consists of classics with a twist—a turkey and cheese with apples and chipotle honey mustard served on a bagel, a ham and cheese with extra tang from the addition of feta, a grilled cheese with Sriracha mayo and tomato, and an Italian hogie on a locally made Breadsmith French roll.
As for that plan to smoke meats in-house, it’s come to pass in the form of house pastrami, piled on rye with Swiss cheese and brown mustard as the Paulstrami.
“The pastrami is all done on a smoker here,” Kuharic said. “We knew we wanted to do something in the shop, and that’s what we chose to start with.”
Where the General goes from here is truly up for grabs, Kuharic said. He’d like to build a smokehouse and add to that lineup of house-smoked meats — turkey is likely next — and the butcher shop idea is still alive. Space won’t be a problem, as there’s another large room next to the café that’s yet to be utilized.
More kitchen equipment is also in the offing, including a range hood that’ll allow the deli to start doing more actual cooking. That could open the door to “all kinds of breakfast sandwiches” to complement the bagels and Zen Café coffee, according to manager Rich Garrett. Garrett said the General’s daily soup special will change with the seasons (“we want to use as much local as possible,” he said), and the slate of sandwiches will likely shift here and there, as well.
To push the meeting place vibe further, Kuharic and Garrett said they’d like to start hosting live music in the near future. Garrett, who’s worked in retail and food service since he was 19, said that as a musician he’d like to see those live acts be a focus for customers rather than background noise.
“I’d like to make it more of an event for that artist or that group, so you don’t have a guy playing in here and it’s a bunch of people that never even listen to music,” he said.
The General’s liquor license has been approved, according to Kuharic, and a full bar with carefully-selected, mostly-local liquor, beer and wine is coming soon. That’ll likely coincide with a proper grand opening, an event to announce the deli’s arrival on the smart street-adorned strip of Jefferson that recently added Render Kitchen & Bar to its lineup of restaurants and retail shops.
“They’ve been really good neighbors,” Kuharic said of Render. “This is starting to become a little destination site, which is kind of nice.”
• 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday
• 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
“You could come down to this strip and be here from noon to 3:30 in the morning,” he said. “We’ve done it. We still do it.”