Al’s Deli has a palpable French flare: Pictures of Parisian landmarks line its walls, and smells of freshly baked baguettes waft from its kitchen out to a long line of customers. Sandwiched between the Coffee Lab and Tomate Fresh Kitchen, Al’s deli has been a Noyes street staple for over 65 years.
Owners and brothers Bob and John Pottinger wear their mutual love of Paris on the sleeves of their matching white aprons.
“We’re both terrible Francophiles, so as soon as we started running the business we started doing all sorts of French things here,” says Bob, co-owner of Al’s. “It’s a niche that we fill and we’re also doing what’s in our heart.”
Bob and John’s father, Al, was a chef in the Navy during World War II. After coming home to Evanston, he worked in a nearby grocery store until the empty space on Noyes Street opened. In 1949, he decided he wanted to run a grocery store of his own and opened up Al’s Deli.
“It was supposed to be temporary, but you know how temporary things go in family businesses,” Bob says of his job at Al’s. “So I’ve been here for 45 years.”
In the beginning, Al’s was a gourmet grocery market, and the deli did not have a very imaginative menu.
When Bob joined the team after graduating from college, he decided to add his own personal touch to the menu. “When my brother John and I came on board, the main sandwich that we sold here was roast beef on white bread with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise,” Bob says.
A French deli seemed like the obvious solution for the Pottinger brothers, who both discovered a passion for Paris at a young age. Bob fell in love with the city after watching a short film called The Red Balloon.
“It’s about a little boy in Paris who has a red balloon that follows him all around the city and he stops in a patisserie and gets a pastry,” Bob says. “It’s a wonderful little film and ever since then I’ve wanted to visit Paris.”
After years of hard work and saving, Bob now goes to Paris twice a year to explore the sights and tastes of his favorite city.
Because of Bob’s frequent visits to Paris, the Pottingers are willing to accept Euros at their store. So if you have a few extra coins lying around after studying abroad, the Pottingers will take them off your hands in exchange for a French treat.
“It’s a good deal for everybody,” Bob says. “I give a good exchange rate, and at the end of the day I just put them in my sock and when I head to Paris I have like a thousand Euros in my pocket, which is good walking around money. You can buy a lot of chocolate éclairs.”