Jimmy Hackett Serves Up Sandwiches at Leo & Jimmy’s Delicatessen

The Delaware native treats all of his customers with grace and respect. Just ask Burt Reynolds.

DT: How old are those photos?
JH: That was down at Green’s 5 & 10 in 1930. (He points to another photo on the wall of the deli.) That was part of the crew that worked here at one time. I used to do work with Limen House and I’d bring three or four people from Limen House that could work from 11 to 2—the lunch hour. (He points to a third photo.) That’s Leo and I on Leo’s 65th birthday. 

DT: That’s a big cake that you’re holding.
JH: Yeah. One of the customers baked it for him. Leo lived to be 91 years old. 

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DT: How long have you been at this location?
JH: We’ve been here since 1974. When I came out of the service, I was 20 and I came to work for Leo in late March. I was only going to stay two weeks because he wanted to go to Florida. My brother was running the store and I came in to help him out for two weeks. We had three stores at one time: Wilmington Dry Goods, H.L. Green and Kresge’s.  My brother left to go into the catering business and then I ran all three stores. I had a personal teacher on merchandising. It was J.M. Lazarus himself, the owner (of Wilmington Dry Goods). We had a little space beyond the counter from here to there. He came in every day. He was a multi-millionaire. He’d sit down and I used to make him a Jewish salami sandwich. And he’d sit there and talk to me the whole time. He would tell me what to do and what to expect and how to promote. I made a mistake one time with him. He was sitting back there and he says, “Jimmy, come here.” I said, “J.M., I’m busy. I’ve got customers.” He said, “I own this store.” In other words, he was saying, “When I call you, you will answer.” That was the lesson right there.

DT: You were fortunate to have someone like that to teach you.
JH: It was a college education the year that I was there. He would fly in from California maybe once a month and stay for three or four days. And he would teach. For some unknown reason he liked me. He liked my style and my approach to people. It was a real education. Then Leo and I worked together for 20-some years. It was a father-son relationship.

DT: It seems that you still enjoy your work.
JH: I do. Every day. I get here approximately 4:30 a.m. every morning and I leave at 3:30 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I live in Hockessin now. I lived in Wilmington for 71 years and then my daughter bought a house in Hockessin. The house next door went up for sale and we bought that. So now I live next to my daughter with my three grandkids right next door.

DT: Do you go to their sporting events and stuff like that?
JH: Yes. When I can. If it’s Saturday. If they play a night game in soccer and don’t start until 6 o’clock, that’s tough for me. I tend to go to bed about 7:30 or 8 o’clock and I get up about quarter after one. I go downstairs and have my breakfast, say my prayers and then I read.

DT: What do you read?
JH: First I read my bible. Then I have a Masonic book of everyday living. And then Dr. Schuller’s “Living Positively Every Day.” 

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DT: What’s the Masonic book called?
JH: It’s called “Everyday Living for Masons” by Alphonse Cerza. It has many stories in it, one for each day of the week. It tells you about brotherhood and how to treat other people. One of the Masons gave it to me. I’ve had it for 15 years. It’s a paperback and it’s falling apart.

DT: How long have you been getting up at 1:15 in the morning?
JH: Sixty-three years. I used to actually start here at 4 a.m.

DT: What do you do?
JH: I do all the prep work. It takes about 2 ½ to 3 hours to get all the lunchmeats and cheeses cut. That will give me a start into a lunch hour. And then I’ll come back out around 1:30 or 2 and finish what I need for the rest of the day. That’s doing sections so that you stay fresh.

DT: Do you always use the same brands?
JH: Oh, yeah. When I first started, we had Morrell, Burke, Brown and Scott. We used to use Medford. There was a distributor that was on Lancaster Avenue called Armour. Armour is gone. Medford is gone. Jack Greenburg was a distributor out of Philadelphia. He’s gone. Nate Wiener, who used to handle Breakstone— he’s gone. We use Dietz & Watson now. In breads, we used to handle Capital Bakers, Freihofer, Huber’s, Stillman Brothers. At that time, a bakery was on Second and King. We used to get two deliveries of rye bread a day. One in the morning and then you’d get a hot rye at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

DT: What about competition through the years?
JH: I was here when the city was really popping. They opened up the Merchandise Mart and everybody said, “You’re going to die now.” The Merchandise Mart is gone and I’m still here. Allmart opened up and they said, “You’re really going to go now.” And I’m still here and Allmart is gone.

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DT: How have you lasted so long? 
Barbara Hackett (his wife): Because of me. (She laughs.)
JH: That’s true.

DT: I think it’s great that you guys can work together all of these years.
Barbara: I don’t know how I did it. (laughs)

DT: So, what’s the secret to your success? Working with family
JH: That has a lot to do with it. But success is spelled: work, work, work.

DT: You’ve seen a lot of change in this city over the years.
JH: One of the things that really hurt the city was when they put I-95 through the center of the city. John Babiarz was mayor then. He and I were good friends. Same with Bill McLaughlin—every one of them down the line. John Babiarz would come in and spend maybe an hour with me every Saturday. He was close to his 80s and he still had good ideas for what the city could be. He was a great person. Bill McLaughlin and I grew up on the East Side. He lived at Sixth and Pine and I lived at Eighth and Kirkwood. His wife, Mary, and I were good friends also. He worked with Pete du Pont on the financial act and brought the banks and credit card companies into the city.

DT: What’s this about you being a mayor?
JH: I was at a Historical Society dinner at the Gold Ballroom five or six years ago. They introduced the public officials. They introduced Mayor Jim Baker, then they said, and “Jimmy Hackett, the Mayor of Market Street.” Mayor Baker stood up and gave me a thumbs up. I got a roaring ovation. (laughs)

DT: You’re not far from The Grand Opera House. Do you ever have celebrities come in?
JH: I waited on Jack Klugman. I waited on Vincent Price. The guy from “Taxi,” Judd Hirsch. I waited on him. This one—you’re going to laugh. Bert Reynolds came in one night. We were closed. He knocked at the door. My wife and family were serving a dinner at the Masonic Hall. I opened the door and said, “What can I do for you?” He has on a long coat and dark glasses and a young girl with him. I knew Burt Reynolds as a tough guy. I did not recognize him. So he comes in and he starts talking about crab cakes. He said, “We can’t get them where I live.” I said, “Why not?” And he said, “I’m from California.” I said, “What are you doing living out there?” He said, “Don’t you know who I am?” I said, “Sir, I don’t have the slightest idea.” He was in town to do some kind of radio thing for Howard High School. I let him in. Talked to him maybe 20 minutes or a half an hour. He said he wanted to get something to eat. He wanted to buy a loaf of bread. I said, “You don’t want a whole loaf. I’ll sell you four slices. Whatever you want, you just ask me and I’ll get it for you.” When he went out the door, he said, “You know, you’re one hell of a man to let me in not even knowing who I was.”

DT: How was Jack Klugman?
JH: He had been coming in here all week long. He had his hat and he stood in line to get a sandwich. We knew who he was. I said, “Don’t call his name out because I don’t want anybody to go rushing to him.” So I had two young girls working here on a Saturday morning and I said to them, “Now Jack Klugman might come in here today. Just wait on him as a customer. Don’t say anything to him.” They said, “Can we get his autograph?” I said, “I’ll see.” He came in and he was standing in front of the counter. I said, “Jack, these two girls would like to have your autograph.” He looked at me and said, “Do you realize I just finished two hours of practice?” and this and that. I said, “And do you realize that without these two girls you’re a nothing? They are your audience.” He signed the paper for them. I guess all hell flew into me when he said that because I had been busy. I said, “Without these kind of people, who are you? These are your fans. You have to take care of them.”

DT: Was Vincent Price scary?
JH: He came in and stayed in the line and he bought a banana. I looked up and I was dumbstruck. I was so nervous I could barely say, “Mr. Price.” We didn’t have any conversation. He just left. He came in and looked at all the people. Nobody bothered him. When the DuPont Theatre used to bring lots of stars here, they would come down. Tony Bennett started to come in but he didn’t. He just looked at the front window. There was a man and wife team who would buy lunch and then go back to the hotel. There have been a lot of them in here. But you know the most famous people in the world is the ordinary person that comes here. And now I’m waiting on the sixth generation of my customers.

DT: That’s great.
JH: I get it all the time. People say, “My grandmother brought me in here when I was a kid. Now, here’s my grandson.” When I first started we had the farmer’s market on King Street three days a week: Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The majority of our customers at that time were either Polish or German. We used to carry meat you’ve never even heard of. 

DT: Do you plan on ever retiring?
JH: I never really thought about retiring. I’ve always said, I’ll retire when it’s a job because this has never been a job. It’s been just a pleasure the whole time. My whole life has revolved around Eighth and Market. My church is St. Andrew’s (located a block from the deli).

DT: I think that’s neat that you can stay in one place and call it home. And everything around you changes, but you stay the same. Have you changed?
JH: I got older, that’s all. I think that I’m blessed. I worked 55 years and never missed a day. That was when I was working six days a week.

DT: No vacations?
JH: Never wanted to go.

DT: Why did you finally miss a day?
JH: I got pancreatitis and they didn’t know what caused it. I had two attacks of that within a three-year period. That was it. I’ve been in the hospital only twice with pancreatitis and one other time with an infection. Other than that, I’ve never been operated on. The longest I ever missed was maybe five days.

DT: What’s that the result of—clean living, genes?
JH: Positivity. My mother lived to be 91. And she lived by herself. She lived right behind me. I lived in Union Park Gardens and a house went up for sale behind me. So I went to the lady and I bought the house so that my mother would never have to go to an apartment or any kind of assisted living. All I had to do was step over the fence and I was right there for her. 

DT: Anything else you want to talk about?
JH: This city has taken a bad rap for the things that are happening, but I still believe in it. I believed in it enough that I took what money I had and invested it right next door. The building was a dilapidated mess when I bought it. The city and I put this thing back together. I worked with the city’s economic development department. I put my money in it and the city helped me with theirs and we made a piece of junk into something that’s really nice. When the work on the building is finished, the cornices will go all the way back to 1850. I’m having trouble getting them made because it’s so intricate. It’s hand-made. You notice the brick is all small brick, with a certain kind of mortar that goes in there. What money I made, I believe in the city enough to put my money back into the city and feel comfortable with it. I want the city to survive and I know that it will.

DT: Have you had any trouble with crime?
JH: I’ve had two incidences in 63 years. A girl came in and handed one of the girls a note saying it was a robbery. She handed her money. She got all the way down to Seventh and Market. People saw her. She went underneath a car and they stood there. Within an hour, they locked up the girl and I got my money back. The other one was just a couple weeks ago. It was a guy who was sick. He was sick, but I can’t tell you how he was sick. He came in one day and talked about taking the Washington Post. He was reading it. I said, “You can’t read it because the guy who buys it is going to come in.” The next day he came back in and he kept the paper. I knew he was going to try to take it, so I stood in the doorway. He was walking with a cane, but that was a false thing, because he could walk fast. He kind of gave me a little shove and he went out the door with it. Three gentlemen were standing on that corner over there. And I said, “Stop him. He just stole a paper.” So they confronted him. He swung the cane at them and then he walked down Eighth Street. So I started walking down there and I didn’t know the three guys on the corner were following me. One was on the phone giving the location of the man. The man in the front was giving a description of what he was wearing. He got all the way down to Fifth and Shipley, picked up and gone. Within another 20 minutes, the paper was brought back and he was locked up. That was in 60-some years. They were not serious things. Not serious at all.

DT: You mentioned that you had Phillies organist Paul Richardson play out front a couple times. What other entertainment have you had?
JH: Tim Laushey and an 18-piece band played out on the street from 11 to 1. I was the first one to put entertainment out there.

DT: How do you stay so positive?
JH: Twenty-five years ago a guy comes into the store. He says, “How are you today?” And I say, “Super good.” Ever since then I’ve been using that. A lot of people use that now. They say it’s because it makes them feel better. All of the organizations I belong to are all positive thinking people. I’ve been a volunteer with The Grand Opera House for 40 years. I was president of the Downtown Business Association for 20 years. I am a founding member and president of donations for the Kiwanis. I’ve been a Mason for 25 years. I also served on the Wilmington police advisory board and fire advisory board, the cancer society and the Henrietta Johnson board.

First, you have to thank God that you gave me another day. Rejoice.

» R​eturn to the January 2013 issue. 

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