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Big city sandwiches, small town sensibility

Sure, the food is great, but PJ’s Deli credits 34-year stay to staff and customers

Cara Muta and Phil Muta, of PJ's Deli, hold baskets of sandwiches with chips inside the Newton eatery. PJ's Deli is celebrating its 34-year anniversary this week.
Cara Muta and Phil Muta, of PJ's Deli, hold baskets of sandwiches with chips inside the Newton eatery. PJ's Deli is celebrating its 34-year anniversary this week.

Phil Muta must have taken home some of that big city spirit when he returned to Newton from a stint in New York City many years ago.

When he wasn’t ordering from a curbside hot dog cart and had a few extra bucks to spare, he was having meals inside some of the infamous delicatessens hidden beneath the gaze of the towering skyscrapers; sandwiches stacked high with fresh deli meats onto a foundation of thin bread.

So when it came time for him and his son, Mike, to open their own deli in Newton, Iowa, Phil thought of his past experience in The Empire State and set out to modify one of New York City’s cultural trademarks to meet the tastes and sensibilities of a working class, Midwestern clientele.

“I realized that a New York deli would not do well in Newton,” he said. “Because Newton is a blue collar town. It’s a town of just hard workers. You gotta do what your customers will let you do. That’s why we kind of kept it the way it is. PJ’s is not what you call a ‘true’ New York deli or anything like that.”

But PJ’s Deli could become a true, Newton deli. At least, that was its objective.

Today, a few days past its 34-year anniversary, PJ’s has accomplished its goal and more, preserving its reputation as one of the handful of flagship restaurants in town. The deli is clearly embraced by the community; Cara Muta, Mike’s wife and co-worker, said it has become a common meet-up or relatives and families returning to their hometown for a holiday or other event.

“I probably wouldn’t be in business if it weren’t for the people of Newton,” Phil said. “I mean they really supported me real well. I don’t think I would have been able to make it anywhere else. It was tough at the beginning. But until you could build a strong customer base it was going to take a while.”

For the first three years, Phil was devoting an average of 16 hours per day at the deli. On Saturdays he worked what he called “half days,” totaling about eight hours — the usual amount someone might work in a 9-to-5 job in a single day. This is typical, too, of any small business, especially restaurants, Phil said.

PJ’s was able to stick it out, even when competition arose from other, sandwich-focused eateries. But Phil knew what he had was special. When a chain sandwich shop started advertising its own dill dip — a signature condiment on PJ’s menu — he figured his business was doing something right.

Of course, staff still say their sought-after dill dip recipe is far superior.

Other than the customers’ support through the years, Phil believes the No. 1 reason why PJ’s has survived so long is his employees. He’s got a “great bunch,” he said. From Cara’s perspective, Phil’s personality and customer-focused approach was what first attracted people to the deli, other than the promise of a tasty sandwich.

Staff work as one cohesive unit, are always keeping themselves busy and seem to know longtime customers’ orders before they even approach the cash register. Some employees, like Debbie Freese, have been working at PJ’s since the first few years it opened. Freese started precisely one day after the restaurant opened for business March 24, 1986, inside the Courthouse Mall building.

She worked for about 11 years at the deli’s first location set up in the opposite end of the current and highly expanded restaurant locale, where it has been for almost 10 years. Freese then returned to PJ’s sometime later. What brought her back? The staff, of course! Well, she has another name for her fellow employees.

“They’re like family, and I missed my family,” Freese said. “I remembered when Phil hired me he said to me, ‘We’re family.’ And if we ever need time off to be home with our kids he’s good with it. I thought what kind of place does that?”

These days Freese continues her work from the ’80s and ’90s, jotting down orders, preparing lunch meats and sides and making PJ’s signatures sandwiches for hungry visitors. Similarly, longtime employee Joy Stout has remained a loyal PJ’s worker since 1993, the longest consecutive worker at the deli.

“We work well together here as a family,” Stout said. “And when we have people who come back to town for a reunion or something there are a couple places they go … People have been coming here a long time. They like to come back.”

The old fashioned way never goes out of style at PJ’s. All sandwiches are served with potato chips and a pickle spear. Fresh ingredients are a must and are regularly prepped ahead of time to ensure fast orders. Customers pay at the register for both dine-in and to-go meals, and then wait for their name to be shouted out.

It’s a simple but effective approach. But that doesn’t mean the restaurant hasn’t adapted to its customers’ needs. PJ’s has a website, a social media page and has enlarged its dine-in space for more comfortable accommodations, which Cara said was needed. There is no way PJ’s could have stayed at its original location. The restaurant also has space for large group reservations.

PJ’s is full of little quirks. Oddly enough, the deli asks guests to not tip. If some do, however, it is still collected and often donated to a nonprofit before the end of the year. Off-menu items from years past are still available to customers, so long as someone on staff remembers what is all on it. Many specialty sandwiches on the menu are named after people or have a particular backstory.

The Joy Wrap (a tomato or basil wrap stuffed with corned beef, turkey, lettuce, tomato, green peppers and garden cream cheese) is named after the employee Joy Stout. Rebekah’s Garden (turkey, ham, lettuce, tomato, black olives, cucumbers, mayo and thousand island dressing on toasted croissant) is the creation of a Muta relative.

Poor Mike has been struggling “for years and years and years” to make a sandwich that wins over his dad and can be put on the menu, Cara said. So far, no luck. Perhaps someday, Mike.

“Even when he’s part owner he can’t even get a sandwich on the menu,” she said with a laugh.

Regardless, Phil has great admiration for his son’s work to improve the deli.

“There probably would have never been a deli if it wasn’t for my son,” Phil said. “He put in a lot of work in this place. I would have never been able to make it without him. You have to give credit — even though I don’t name a sandwich after him.”

Both father and son have put in a lot of “sweat equity,” Cara said, which has only benefited PJ’s in the long run. As has Phil’s unfettering optimism.

“I never think about failing,” he said. “When you think about it it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I try not to think about it. I figure if it happens let it be a surprise.”

After almost three-and-a-half decades in business, PJ’s is treasured by the community. Lunch hours can be especially hectic for staff, depending on the season. But those characters making the sandwiches — who love to bicker with each other between tickets — don’t seem to mind all that much.

Neither do the customers, it seems. To them it’s part of the experience.

New York City may have claimed its cultural stamp on delis, but PJ’s is clearly a Newton state of mind.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or