The following appeared on the Ella’s Deli’s website in January 2018:
It is with sad hearts that we announce that Ella’s Deli will be closing at our current location. It has been our privilege to be a part of the Madison community for 42 years.
Ella’s has always been about people and we are so very grateful to all our customers and employees. To the many families that have visited us, including over multiple generations, we have enjoyed getting to know you and meeting your children and then your children’s children. To the thousands of amazing former and current employees we have had over the years, your dedication has made Ella’s the award winning destination it is today. Our goal is to continue the Ella’s tradition. It is our hope that Ella’s will be back under new ownership, in a new space, and with a new and exciting direction.
We hope you can visit us, say hi, and enjoy your favorites one last time. Our last day of business will be around January 21, 2018. We may modify our hours to accommodate our employees. We will update on our Facebook page with changes as we make them.
Thank you again for allowing us to be a part of this community by including us in so many moments in your lives, from celebrating birthdays, to first dates, to just enjoying family dinners. We are forever grateful for your support.
Ella Fodiman Hirschfeld was born on February 28, 1914 in Russia and came to America as an infant. She grew up in a Russian/Jewish area in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the age of 19 she met and married Harry C. Hirschfeld and the couple made their way to Madison in 1939. Ella was very active in her faith and through local Jewish organizations. She was a founding member of Beth Israel center in Madison and she was Administrative Secretary to multiple rabbis.
On July 4, 1963, Ella and Harry opened Ella’s Deli in downtown Madison, Wisconsin. Ella had been catering meals for the Hillel organization at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and her rabbi loved the food so much that he suggested she should open a deli. The Hirschfeld’s bought an old grocery store at 425 State Street and christened the business Ella’s Deli, as the local Jewish students had gotten to know Ella so well.
Business boomed from the start. Ella told the Wisconsin State Journal in 1993, “we worked very hard getting it organized, but on Saturdays and Sundays, we used to have lines that reached around the corner.” The corned beef, roast beef and homemade pound cake were the biggest sellers.
Unfortunately for Ella and Harry, the business got too successful and they had a hard time keeping up. The sold Ella’s Deli in 1967 to Nathan Balkin. Under Balkin business continued to flourish and Ella’s was about to expand. A second location at 2902 E. Washington Ave. (East Wash) opened in 1976. Ella Hirschfeld died in 1995.
The second location was smashing success. The menu featured many traditional Jewish items including matzo ball soup, liver, tongue, kugel, blintzes, bagels. There were also dozens of soup, salad and sandwich options. The real kicker was the ice cream counter, which had 26 flavors of Chocolate Shoppe ice cream and a modified version Ella’s pundcake recipe that was turned into a poundcake sundae.
The food and ice cream weren’t the only reason for Ella’s success. Owner Ken Balkin, son of Nathan, described the location on East Wash as a “Jewish Deli (crossed) with animated circus toys.” He went to say that “Ella’s reputation as a destination restaurant has grown along with its burgeoning collection of whizzing, whirling antique toys and its remarkable 1929 vintage Parker carousel next to the Parking lot. It’s an amazing place with a design that is totally distinctive.”
There were 40 unique tables, with tchotchkes and trinkets under glass, superheroes, trains planes, clowns, robots and famous cartoon characters covered the restaurant, which had a capacity of 150 people.
Ella’s on State Street closed in 1999. In late 2017, Ken Balkin announced that they were looking to sell Ella’s quickly. He stated “We have decided that the time is right. The economics have just been difficult recently. The competitive nature of the restaurant business in Madison is pretty brutal.” Having found no seller, that’s when they official announced on Facebook and their website that they were closing for good.
On January 21, 2018 a giant celebration was held to honor the 42 years of Ella’s. Tears flowed and hugs plentiful. The local landmark closed its doors that night. The building is still vacant.
A letter in Wisconsin State Journal on January 27, 2018 summed up perfectly what Ella’s meant to Madison:
We have enjoyed Ella’s Deli since its opening, and we want to honor and appreciate the good things the Balkins have done in addition to the remarkable ways they have fed and entertained us.
From the opening of Ella’s Deli and over the decades, the Balkins have created a gift for the people of Madison. This iconic place of kosher-style food, and with its wonderful toy collection, has offered a warm welcome and unique entertainment for all ages.
In addition to gracious hospitality, the Balkins have offered safe employment opportunities for many young people and adults in their ﬁrst job experiences.
In our personal visits, we have enjoyed the friendship of Ken and Judy Balkin and members of the staff. They introduced us to new, constantly changing artistic displays of cartoon characters and dream creations, descending from the ceiling and all around us. We have seen these fantasies bring joy to toddlers and “children at heart.”
Many Madison citizens have pursued their entrepreneurial dreams — few have accomplished them as successfully as the Balkins. We are sorry to see Ella’s Deli disappear from the Madison landscape. It has been a shimmering jewel, welcoming all of us.
We thank the Balkins and wish them well in their retirement. – Howard and Lucetta Kanetzke, Madison