Old World tradition
by Monica Chamness
Hearty food in the tradition of Old World Europe beckons at Worman’s Bakery & Deli. A downtown staple from the days of flappers and Tommy guns, Worman’s continues to serve breakfast, delicatessen-style sandwiches and homemade desserts six days a week.
Formed in 1923 by Sam and Rosa Worman, the family business first opened its doors on East Eighth Street.
“My father was an old-time baker,” said Pearl Leibowitz, co-owner of Worman’s and daughter of its founders. “He learned the trade in Germany. Both my parents immigrated from Poland and settled in New York. They saw an ad for a bakery in Jacksonville and came south.”
Now situated at Broad and Adams streets, the little eatery has seen its share of ups and downs. With the city’s consolidation and subsequent suburban sprawl, downtown businesses went under or went out of the city’s core.
Leibowitz recalled when the tough times hit.
“In the 1950s, this area was very robust and well-trafficked,” she said. “The downturn was around the 1960s when all the [racial] turmoil was going on. It affected all the businesses around here. We continued to hold on but business was not great.”
Sales eventually increased, and around 1970, Leibowitz and her brother Morris Worman took over the restaurant from their aging mother, Rosa Worman, who stayed active in the business until she turned 90 years old. Now, the next generation of Worman’s are sharing their family recipes with hungry downtown workers and visitors.
Leibowitz’s son, workers compensation attorney Martin Leibowitz, will not be following in his mother’s footsteps.
Neither the Leibowitz daughters nor Morris Worman’s sons were interested in running the restaurant so Scott Worman, Leibowitz’s nephew, is being groomed to succeed her and her brother.
“He carries the brunt of the business now,” said Leibowitz. “He is more than capable. Scott is well-known and people like him. He’s in touch with everything going on here. He knows the customers by first name.”
Surviving the rocky road of entrepreneurship while maintaining their culinary customs was a challenge the familial entourage rose to meet.
Recently, a rash of unfortunate incidents have caused headaches for Leibowitz, Worman and their staff of a dozen or so. Within a span of five months, they had three break-ins and drivers have plowed into their building with their cars on at least four occasions. Despite setbacks and changing times, Worman’s has stayed put.
There have been other Worman’s. A second restaurant was established in San Marco, but negotiations to buy the building fell through so the store was moved to Lakewood.
A stream of patrons graced the establishment, but infrastructure developments produced a fatal blow.
“It went fine until the state road department decided to separate San Jose into two lanes,” said Leibowitz. Construction resulted in a blocked entrance to the shopping center and Worman’s closed.
“This store is steadily on the rise with what they’re doing in the downtown area,” she said. “Our customers from San Jose — the oldtimers who love our food — came here. Business has steadily been getting better and better.”
Things are going so well that the owners are considering doing a modest remodeling to modernize the place.
New showcases and a fresh coat of paint are in the plans. The paneled walls will stay thanks to their popularity with the customers.
“People love this paneling,” she explained. “They say it gives a warm feeling. I want to retain a little of the Old World yet spruce up a bit.”
Part of the ambiance of the establishment is evidenced by native postcards, relics of historic Jacksonville and old photographs — such as pictures of the beach’s roller coaster — hanging on the walls.
“I remember when there was a train that went to the beach,” said Leibowitz. “I’ve watched the City growing and it’s phenomenal.
“We’re marching along to the tune of Jacksonville and we hope we’ll be successful just as Jacksonville has been successful.”
Leibowitz anticipates a spill over from the growth, especially with the Duval County Courthouse going up across the street in a few years.
“Even during construction, people are down here working,” she said.
Approaching 80 consecutive years downtown, Worman’s time-tested recipes are the backbone of the enterprise.
Rye bread is baked on the hearth of an oven, not in a pan. The potato salad and Danish pastries do not waver in content and their provision company has been the same for 50 years. Their ingredients have remained constant, too.
What began as a small company delivering edibles house-to-house is now one of the oldest institutions downtown. In its early years, the dining spot was bordered by a shoe store and a bar. The family purchased the building in 1982 and expanded into the full space. Drawing from the lessons they learned with the other venture, Worman’s is not likely to expand more anytime soon.
“After we closed the San Jose store, we realized bigger is not better,” said Leibowitz.
“If you concentrate your efforts in one place, you have more control.”
Focusing on what they do best is what keeps customers coming back.
Regardless of how good the food may be, service is an integral part of the business. Their servers tend to have a low turnover. Some of their bakers remained with the company until their deaths. One lady in their kitchen has been there 12 years and another long-time employee just retired.
“We make items no one makes anymore, like poppyseed strudel,” said Leibowitz of the deli’s longevity. “It’s a European recipe. People who have ancestors who made it, look for it. If you use the best ingredients, it has got to be good. If you take shortcuts, it shows.”