The Deli, as it is fondly nicknamed by so many, is a local icon to most Yukoners (not just those in Whitehorse), as well as to many travellers from around the world. (This tribute was written to help celebrate its 50th Anniversary on December 14, 2018.)
The Deli started as a dream that Ernst Wohlfarth (better known as Ernie) had when he was growing up in war-torn Germany. He dreamed of making sausage and became an apprentice in that field, as a young teenager. He soon realized that it was not going to be possible as a career, in his homeland, and dreamt of a better life elsewhere. After marrying his sweetheart, Ilse (Elsie), they saw Canada as the land of opportunity, particularly the magic and the mystery of the Yukon.
With a very young daughter (me, Ulrike) and another on the way soon (Elke), they moved to Whitehorse in 1959. Shortly after Karin’s birth in 1961, the large boarding house at 203 Hanson Street was purchased and shared with renters, as was the old Quonset hut in the backyard. Ralph and Doris soon followed, to round out the family, and Ilse’s days were very full: she took care of her growing family and the many boarders (including Jim Robb, who started his painting career there), while being very frugal with the pay cheques that Ernie brought home.
Less than 10 years after immigrating, with much saving, planning and incredible hard work, their dream came true. On Friday, December 13, 1968, the Delicatessen Center opened its doors to a flood of customers eager to buy the longed-for hearty breads, cheeses, homemade sausages and other delicacies of their native European countries.
Other locals flocked to the new store, which soon needed to change its location to expand. After overcoming several challenges, the lower floor of the new building, constructed in front of the boarding house, opened in 1970. The next year, two more stories were added, including a new residence for the Wohlfarths. The Deli moved up a floor, and Ernie had a much-larger domain for meat cutting and sausage making. Next, the Quonset hut was sold and disassembled, while the boarding house was bulldozed, so all three floors of the building could be extended towards the alley.
Ernie and Ilse respected the needs of their fledgling business, oftentimes above their own. Regardless of what challenges they were facing (and there were many), customers got good service with a smile. My parents toiled many long hours, each day, far more than 40 hours a week. All of us five kids and, in time, many of Ernie and Ilse’s grandkids, worked in the ever-growing family business. They taught us their strong work ethic, yet there was time, each Sunday, for a break at Trinity Lutheran Church, which they helped found in 1961, and some family time (often to the Takhini Hot Springs for a swim, or for a picnic in our beautiful wilderness, or to the old Marsh Lake Lodge for the dinner smorg).
As a result of the hard work, The Deli continued growing through crazy, busy summers and anxious long winters. In the fall, hunters would bring in their wild game, especially moose, to be cut up, after hours, into custom-sized roasts and steaks, ground into burger or made into fresh and smoked sausage. As local industry grew, ranchers and farmers brought their meat for professional cutting, wrapping and quick freezing in the large blast freezer.
State-of-the-art equipment was often bought, each time in larger sizes, several times necessitating buying trips to the international butchers’ fairs in Frankfurt, Germany. At one point, the massive cheese showcase housed over 120 varieties of cheese, from many different countries, that we were encouraged to taste so we could tell customers what they tasted like, or to give them a sample.
In the spring of 1978, Yukon Meat & Sausage was established. This wholesale side of the business was another successful step and was soon supplying many stores and restaurants throughout the Yukon, up to the Beaufort Sea and into Norman Wells and northern B.C. The mining and exploration camps were an added bonus in the boom times, with many large and small operations being supplied.
Ernie was always on the lookout to showcase his sausage, and both The Deli and Yukon Meat & Sausage were key participants in trade shows, for many years. A mobile food truck was driven the circuit of construction sites, for several years, and was often seen parked around Whitehorse, with sausage and other mouthwatering delicacies for sale on holidays and other special occasions, such as the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous.
Maintaining both quality and service was always fundamental, as was caring for customers and building rapport with them.
Everyone has at least one of their own Deli stories. Adults continue to love their shopping trips there, and many of the kids we went to school with can remember spending their allowance on the Dutch salted licorice and other tantalizing imported candy.
I have many memories, as I started working there when I was 10. The first summer of the Deli, in the Quonset hut, the White Pass & Yukon Route train was a few blocks away, on evacuation alert (in the hot, dry summer of 1969), when a wildly-raging forest fire encroached on Whitehorse. Billows of choking smoke filled the air on my trips back and forth to the large outside bread freezer. I remember the near panic to get the new Deli opened for the Christmas season in 1970. Mom needed to miss the gift exchange at church and was so relieved when many of the ladies came afterwards to help stock shelves, for several hours, so the new store would be ready to open the next morning.
I remember my mom helping many people who were down on their luck (she sometimes traded paintings and other wares for Deli purchases). There were many deliveries to Mary House, with boxes of food. Discounts continue to be offered to seniors and to some charitable groups, and community-mindedness included sponsoring many local events and sports teams, over the decades.
Ernie and Ilse’s pioneering spirit—of perseverance, dedication, faith, hope, love for each other and for many others, coupled with their hard work to accomplish their common vision and goals—has left a great legacy that many still enjoy now.
Ernie continued his beloved sausage making until his early 80s. Ilse officially retired a bit earlier, when she was well into her 70s. She often came out of retirement, when needed, especially at Christmastime, to make hundreds of her very popular cheese balls.
The official ownership of the businesses changed several times within the family, over the years. Fresh ideas and continued adaptability to their customers’ needs ensured the sustained growth of both businesses. They were last owned by Ralph and his wife, Sandra, from the turn of the century until July 15, 2016.
That day, Vienna and Larissa, also from long-time Yukon families, became the current owners. They have merged the two brands together into The Deli Café & Eatery also Yukon Meat & Sausage to achieve even more. Their ever-expanding range of delicious food continues to be popular in the store and through their catering. The large variety of in-house-made sausages are also available at other local businesses, such as Wyke’s Your Independent Grocer and at G&P Steakhouse & Pizza. The new owners tastefully continue the family tradition, including the large, framed black-and-white photos on the walls, with more coming soon, sparking a walk down memory lane for many. For more information contact the Deli by email at [email protected] or visit their Facebook page, The Deli Yukon.
You are invited to celebrate the landmark 50th Anniversary of The Deli, on Friday, December 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.