Sheila Leventhal's parents opened Cecil's Deli in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood in July 1949. She remembers sitting on a soda crate in a back room with her sister, peeling and dicing potatoes for their mother to cook on a two-burner stove.
In 1980, Leventhal and her husband David bought the restaurant from her parents and the couple — along with children, grandchildren, longtime staff and their children — have kept Minnesota's oldest delicatessen churning out chicken soup, Reuben sandwiches and knishes ever since.
Eye On St. Paul recently visited Leventhal at Cecil's, where she paused — briefly — to tell the story of her restaurant, and herself. This interview was edited for length.
Q: How did you get your start here?
A: I was 8 when we opened. My parents would bring me to work sometimes. By 13, I was dusting shelves. My dad was Cecil [Glickman]. My mom was Faye. They were in this together and remained in it together until they were done. And then they walked out together. They walked out July 1, . That's when David and I bought the business.
Q: And you're still here every day?
A: I'm always running. Recently, I caught my foot on something in the garage, I spun and fell and broke my lower pelvis.
A: About six months ago. I'm telling you. I was still determined. I was still working out. I took my walker to the Life Time Fitness. Then I went to a cane. It didn't bother me. Six weeks after I broke it, I was doing yoga.
A: Yeah. Have you ever done yoga? Well, the instructor asked me, "Can't you get [your legs] farther apart?" I told him no. After class, I told him why and he was amazed. I was just determined not to let it get me down.
Q: How active are you and your husband with the restaurant?
A: My sons are supposed to be the ones running it. But there were always four of us. My husband had a stroke in 2020. He moves a little bit slower, but he still comes seven days a week. We live like a block and a half away and we walk in the alley — in the summer, in winter.
Q: It sounds like you both have the same philosophy
[She stops to talk to two of her employees asking her for help setting up deliveries.]
Q: So your kids and your grandkids all work here?
A: Oh yeah.
Q: How many family members work here?
A: OK, there are seven grandchildren. Three of them are very close in age ... [stops interview to talk to a busser about how to wipe down tables and chairs]
Where was I? I'm also trying to move Oct. 1 to an apartment with my husband, and I'm not nearly prepared. It's one level. We're moving from a two-story home.
I've been from my bedroom to the basement three times already today. I try to limit it now. My husband, who had both knees replaced, has been doing this for years. He gets dressed in the morning and he does not go back up there until it's time to go to bed.
But he also does Judo three times a week.
Q: Wait. What? Your husband, who had both knees replaced? And a stroke?
A: Yes. He had both knees replaced because he was doing Judo and racquetball and he was given a choice: Gotta get rid of one.
Q: And you broke a pelvis. Amazing.
A: Well, I try. Sunday, I worked in the morning with the youngest [grandchild] because somebody has to answer the phone. And then I had 15 people [in the restaurant] for dinner.
Q: What is it about Cecil's that makes people want to stay?
A: It's just, I don't know, they just start here and they stay. We have ladies in the back who started when their daughters were girls. Now they're in college.
Q: What is your favorite thing on the menu?
A: Why don't you ask me what the favorite thing is? We sell more Reubens than anything else. Every time I answer the phone, especially on Friday, people invariably order a Reuben or a Russian Reuben. Everybody loves a Reuben.
But there are other ones that are kind of getting up there, like the Sasha. Some of these have been on the menu since the beginning of time. This one [points to menu], it had a different name.
Q: The Attazoy?
A: Yes. It was on the original menu. My mother put it on there but it had a different name. The menu was very small.
Q: It's not small now.
A: No, it's not. It's overwhelming. [She pauses to suggest customers email larger to-go orders to ensure they don't forget what they ordered. Then she asks a man waiting to be seated if he's been helped. He has.]
Where was I?
Q: You don't sit still much, do you?
A: Well, I … no. Which is why I had that fall.
And what makes me sad is that I have not been able to go back to aerobics. I didn't start aerobics until I was 45. Back when I went on the big diet. I was 227 [pounds] when I had my last child. I just couldn't do that anymore. I started doing aerobics when I was 45, and at 62 the instructor said I should go to CorePower because it was really intense.
Q: Do you ever see yourself retiring?
A: You know, it's very difficult. My husband is here seven days a week. What am I going to do?