A Los Angeles chef is attracting new customers at his newly rebranded Detroit-style deli that carries staples like Vernors, Faygo and Better Made Potato Chips – all of which are hard to find in California.
Jeff Meyer, the owner and head chef at Motor City Deli, says he does as much as he can to make the deli feel and taste like Detroit. The inside of the deli is decked out with the logos of Detroit sports teams. On the menu is a sandwich called “The Detroiter,” a hot corned beef sandwich topped with slaw, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing served on seedless rye bread.
“In LA, rye bread usually has caraway seeds in it. But in Detroit, we don’t use caraway seeds,” Meyer said. “So, I have the rye bread custom-made without the seeds. It’s not something they’re used to out here in LA, but they’ve gotten used to it when they come here.”
Meyer, who is Jewish, grew up in metro Detroit in the ‘70s and ‘80s. His family originally lived in the Dexter-Davison neighborhood before moving to Southfield. He spent a lot of time in the city while his father owned and ran the Junction-McGregor Waste Paper & Metal Co., a recycling company on the southwest side.
“There’s always a lot of good food choices in Detroit – the delis, barbecue, Greektown,” Meyer said. “People say LA has a much better food scene. I don’t really agree. Detroit’s food scene is just not promoted as much as other cities.”
Meyer first moved to Los Angeles in ’94 when he was 25 to pursue an acting career. He ran a casting company for about seven years before he moved back to metro Detroit in 2004 to care for his mother after his father died.
Back home is where Meyer developed his passion for cooking. He honed his skills in Schoolcraft College’s culinary arts program. After working in restaurants in Michigan, New York, Florida and the Caribbean, Meyer moved back to Los Angeles around 2014. In the Culver City Arts District, he opened a deli called Element 29, a reference to the deli’s copper interior design.
Business got off to a rocky start, with some suggesting Meyer should close.
“I told them, ‘No, I’m not done yet.’” Meyer said. “I may lose money, but until I can’t pay my rent anymore, I will be here working because as long as the doors are still open, there’s still a chance at success.”
Meyer, who runs the kitchen with his sous-chef, Rolando Jones, began to promote Element 29 as a Detroit-style deli. He ordered his sausages directly from Dearborn Sausage Company, and Faygo drinks and Better Made chips directly from Detroit. He later painted a Detroit Tigers logo on the floor and put Red Wings and Tigers logos on the wall. He redesigned the menu, and this spring he officially renamed the business Motor City Deli. Meyer said he has since seen an uptick in business.
“There are a lot of people from Detroit out here in LA,” Meyer said. “One day, somebody came in and they go, ‘We’re just driving down the road and we thought we saw Red Wings on the wall. We literally made a U-turn and came back to what was going on here.’”
Alex Baskin, a long-time customer, has never been to Detroit, but says the city was a big part of his upbringing.
“In our house, it was Lions, Tigers and [Red] Wings,” said Baskin, who noted he grew up in Northern California but his parents hail from Detroit. “And Vernors. We used it in cooking. We used it in stews. It was my sick-day drink when I had a stomach ache.”
Today Baskin works in film production in Los Angeles and says the closest he ever gets to Detroit is when he dines at Motor City Deli. But it’s not just the Detroit décor that attracts customers; it’s the food. Meyer said he makes everything from scratch, from the corned beef and pastrami to the smoked turkey. Because of this, Baskin has been a loyal customer since the Element 29 days.
“I always tell Jeff, ‘You know once people take a bite of your stuff, it’s a wrap,’” Baskin said.
Larry Meyers, another loyal customer originally from Pittsburgh, dines at the deli with his fiancé at least once a week. He says it’s refreshing to have an authentic deli in a city where the Jewish delis are vanishing.
“I’m from the East Coast where they invented delis, so I’m just used to this higher standard of quality,” Meyers said.
Jeff Meyer caters for entertainment companies like Sony Pictures Animation, Apple Inc. and the talent agency CAA. He partnered with a comedian and TV writer to host a benefit comedy show at the deli to support artists who have lost income during the strikes. He said this is all fitting considering that he initially moved to Los Angeles to become an actor.
“I kind of found my way back into the entertainment industry with my deli and catering,” Meyer said.
Meyer said the deli will soon begin offering products from Detroit-based Motor City Popcorn and that Detroiters patronizing the deli may be treated to a discount.
“I don’t say it off the bat,” Meyer said. “The other day, a guy came in wearing a Red Wings jersey, and I said, ‘You get ten percent off.”