1983. Michael Jackson releases the groundbreaking video from his album Thriller while his song Billie Jean is tearing up the music charts. MTV continues its epic rise. America watches their favorite weekly TV series: Miami Vice, Dynasty, Magnum, P.I., Cheers, Fame, Family Ties, and Knight Rider. On the silver screen, Return of the Jedi dominates the box office, Flashdance gets us moving, and Terms of Endearment makes us cry. It’s the eighties – the time of big hair, big shoulder pads, and big dreams.
Enter two men, one mission, and A Flock of Seagulls, er, birds, we mean birds.
Let’s start with the two men. Phil Wenger and Isaac Williams met as many friends do – while attending college. In this particular case, we’re talking about Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. Phil was majoring in liberal arts while Isaac was an art major. After graduating, Phil moved back to Lancaster and took a job in sales for a flower wholesaler and Isaac began working as a chef in a local restaurant. Isaac loved new projects so it wasn’t long before he suggested they open a restaurant. When that spark of Isaac Williams’ idea hit the entrepreneurial tinder that was Phil Wenger, Isaac’s was born.
As the two men began brainstorming, a deli/restaurant was created. Isaac brought his art to the start-up with an eclectic design for the interior and, with his cooking knowledge, created the first menu. Oh yeah…and his name. Phil brought his experience running a business, his energetic nature and drive, and a desire to create something that would give back to the community. Oh yeah, and his father, Chester Wenger. Mr. Wenger provided some financial backing to enable the college friends to purchase the former Lunch Box Deli in Lancaster’s Central Market Mall.
Yes, now onto the birds. A flamingo, to be more specific. What’s that all about, anyway? Well, as we said earlier, Miami Vice was a popular TV series in the 80s. Part of the opening sequence for the television show was a shot of a flock of flamingos running into the water. The local color scheme of South Florida where the detective series was filmed - flamingo pinks, lime greens, Caribbean blues and teals – was adopted in addition to the flamingo. But the flamingo was only the beginning. You may have noticed there are a “few” other birds who make an appearance on the menu. Phil comes from a family of hobby ornithologists (also known as birdwatchers) and naming sandwiches after birds sounded like a good way to differentiate themselves from the restaurant rabble. I mean, you’d have to be crazy as a loon not to think that’s cool, right?
So, everything’s set. The name. Isaac’s Deli. The place. 44 North Queen Street, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The menu. 26 sandwiches. The date: August 25, 1983. The doors are unlocked and Isaac’s Deli is open for business.
Alas, all good stories have an unexpected twist. Only three months into the adventure, Isaac Williams, led by his artistic wanderlust, latched onto a business opportunity in Alaska. He was powerless to resist the call of the wild, and Phil took over as the creative force and focused all his attention on running a successful restaurant named for his friend.
Still, it’s one heck of a story! Restaurant designed by liberal arts major and an art major goes on to launch 20 restaurants in 6 counties. Sure, what they didn’t know about business was a lot but the ideas and the tenets (and the great food) behind their pink and turquoise deli, inhabited by birds and people with a desire to make a difference in their community, still makes sense more than a quarter of a century later. At the end of our first 25 years, the bottom line is that Isaac’s Restaurant & Deli is still a great place to meet friends and get a great sandwich.