Soupmakers’ Bring France To Noyes Street

Elise Foley

By Elise FoleyContributing Writer

“We accept Euros,” reads a sign over the cash register at Al’s Deli, an Evanston staple since 1949.

Just west of the Noyes Street El stop, a small American storefront conceals a distinctly European deli.

“My brother and I are Francophiles; we love everything French,” said Bob Pottinger, co-owner of Al’s Deli, a French-style delicatessen that was started in the 1940s by his father, Al Pottinger.

“Our dad was a cook in the navy, then, after World War II, he worked for Kroger’s,” Pottinger said. “He didn’t like working for a big corporation, so he started the deli.”

The younger Pottinger took over the store in 1971 while his father was in the hospital.

“Thirty-five years later and here I still am,” Pottinger said. “Our last name, Pottinger, means soup maker in French. I was doomed to toil over a hot stove all day.”

The deli changed over the years, evolving from a specialty grocery store into the restaurant it is today.

“It has always been kind of a niche,” Pottinger said. “It started as a grocery store, then evolved into a restaurant that sells some specialty items.”

Al’s Deli serves mostly French soups and sandwiches, which range in cost from $5 to $10. Pottinger said he is always looking for new recipes at restaurants when he goes out to dinner, in the cookbooks he reads and especially on trips to France, which he takes several times a year.

His favorite find is the Baguette des Peres, now an Al’s Deli staple.

“I go to France a few times a year. Once when I was there, I saw students lined up at a bakery, and I knew it must be a good bakery, so I went in,” Pottinger said. “That’s where I found the specialty baguettes. I ate lunch there for the rest of the vacation, and when I came home, I brought a few baguettes.”

He then took the baguettes to the Red Hen Bakery, which makes Al’s bread. It took them six weeks to mimic the baguette’s recipe and recreate the French bread.

Pottinger claims Al’s Deli is now the only place in the United States where the Baguette des Peres can be found.

The deli is frequented mostly by Northwestern students and staff, whom Pottinger believes are looking for the sort of homemade, high-quality food Al’s Deli offers.

“Sandwiches are really good and almost everything is homemade from scratch,” Pottinger said. “Students are always looking for something big and good and not too expensive.”

For Arno Merkle, a engineering graduate student, it’s the owners’ delightful charm that keeps making him come back a couple of times a week.

But Jimmy Costakis, a McCormick sophomore, said that the food is the main allure.

“(There are) huge sandwiches, and the cookies are incredible,” he said. “It takes forever, but it’s worth it.”

After 57 years in business serving up tasty food, Pottinger said there’s no plan to stop.

“We make things according to our own tastes and people like them,” Pottinger said. “Business is booming.”

Reach Elise Foley at [email protected]