Getting one last corned beef sandwich and a grilled pound cake hot fudge sundae at Ella’s Deli hasn’t been easy these past few weeks. Thousands of people — from near and far — felt the need to experience the Madison institution a final time before it closed at 3 p.m. Sunday.
“I used to come a lot as a child. It was the one place I knew I was going to be happy,” said Guy Moyer, 16, who came to Madison Saturday night from Racine with his grandfather, but the line was too long to get in.
They found a hotel room and returned at 9:15 a.m. Sunday, almost two hours before the restaurant opened. They were among the first in a line that wrapped around the restaurant’s famous carousel, now covered for winter, and beyond the building to the restaurant’s familiar hot air balloon sign on East Washington Avenue.
“The merry-go-round is awesome,” said Moyer’s grandfather, Dan Moyer, 54, getting nostalgic about putting his grandson on one of the horses when Guy was a child.
“It’s like going down memory lane in here,” Dan Moyer said. “The memorabilia reminds you of being at a circus. It’s like going back in time. It’s priceless.”
Longtime manager Catie Tollefson said the restaurant had a line out the door “every minute” since 5 p.m. on Jan. 3, the day owners Ken and Judy Balkin announced they would be closing the whimsical, toy-filled restaurant after 42 years unless a buyer stepped forward in a hurry.
No one had done that by Ken Balkin’s deadline, but Balkin said there’s been some interest. In the next week, when he’ll have more time, he plans to meet with some prospective buyers to evaluate any offers and “to see if there is a fit for our name and reputation.”
“We really want it to live on and we hope that it does,” Balkin said.
Include Ashley Hebl, 36, among those who are hopeful someone will keep Ella’s alive. She flew in from the U.S. Virgin Islands at 3 a.m. Sunday and was in line at Ella’s by 10:10 a.m. She’ll leave Tuesday. “This was an Ella’s Deli closing trip,” she said.
She follows Ella’s online and saw the Jan. 3 Facebook post announcing the restaurant would close Jan. 21. She was unable to leave home earlier because of hurricanes that damaged her home island of St. John.
When her father, Tom Hebl, a municipal judge in Sun Prairie and former state legislator, married her stepmother, Patty Conrad Hebl, and blended their two families, all the children met for the first time at Ella’s.
“They walked in the door and said, ‘Table for seven,’ and looked at each other and had to laugh because that was the new reality — table for seven,” Hebl said.
Hebl enjoyed one last meal at the restaurant Sunday with her father and stepmother and, like many others, stood in Ella’s parking lot taking photos and videos. Hebl, who has been coming to Ella’s for 30 years, said since she moved away it’s always been the first stop off the plane when she comes to Madison and the last stop before she leaves.
Balkin and Tollefson said that in the final weeks customers came from across Wisconsin, and from states including Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota. Many of them used to live here.
“Every single table has a story,” Tollefson said.
The Balkin children were also there Sunday. Danny Balkin, 36, took a red-eye from San Francisco, where he’s a surgeon, and surprised his parents for the restaurant’s last weekend. Carrie Klein, 40, is a social worker for the Madison School District.
“We’re so proud of our parents. Our whole life we’ve been so proud to say that our parents owned Ella’s Deli,” said Danny Balkin, who had also come home the weekend before, and spent many hours both weekends at the grill flipping burgers.
Danny Balkin said he’s long been impressed by the variety and scope of the mechanical toys his father has created over the years in his workshop next door. He pointed out some clowns going up and down on stilts his father built after being inspired by an antique German toy. Ken Balkin is quick to point out that he’s had help making the toys over the years.
Judy Balkin said she and her husband didn’t let their children work in the restaurant until the last few frenzied weeks, when they needed all the staff they could get.
Many former employees came in to help out, including Becky Gerothanas, of Cottage Grove. She worked at the restaurant with its expansive, 20-page menu for eight years in her youth, and was back on Sunday to set tables and refill water glasses. She paid for college working at Ella’s and also financed her first car, first apartment and even her wedding.
“Ken and Judy gave lots of opportunities to lots of people for many years,” said Gerothanas, whose son was scooping ice cream Sunday.
“My parents give people a chance that other people won’t give chances to,” Klein said.
“One employee said to me yesterday that he never had a job that wasn’t about the money until he started working here,” Danny Balkin said.
Ken Balkin said the comments he heard from the public have warmed his heart. “The countless stories — rewarding kids before or after their visit to UW Children’s Hospital, to marriage proposals to anniversaries to high school proms. Countless, countless celebrations and family experiences.”
He told the story of a 34-year-old woman who recently came in to celebrate her birthday with her parents. As a 4-year-old girl, she had won a coloring contest at Ella’s. On her recent visit, her parents framed that picture and gave it to her at the restaurant.
A history of the restaurant on Ella’s website says that Ella Hirschfeld started Ella’s on State Street as a small kosher-style deli, grocery store and restaurant in the early 1960s.
Ken Balkin’s parents took over the State Street site in the mid-’60s, before they opened the second, East Washington Avenue location in 1976. They “eliminated the grocery concept and expanded into a full service kosher style deli/restaurant ... with an additional and separate dessert menu,” the website says.
When Ella’s on State Street closed in 1999, it was one of State Street’s oldest businesses. That location is now home to Hawk’s Bar and Grill.
Ella’s on East Washington had 40 tables and a capacity of 150, so it wasn’t a small restaurant. And, even though the menu had been scaled back for its last eight days, Tollefson said they tried to make sure customers still had a chance to get their favorites.
“We’ve done a really good job in satisfying people’s last experience,” Ken Balkin said. “We’re proud of our staff.”