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It Ain't Chopped Liver

The Morry's Story: How Gary Orman and a Band of Thai Guys Built the Family Deli Into a Food-Service Empire


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It's lunchtime at Morry's deli, and the line is in high gear. Henry Ford would be proud.

By 12:10, the line of customers is at least 40 people deep, curving around a counter and a doorway. Large placards with elaborate menus are hung high on the walls, advertising roast beef, corned beef, and pastrami in every combination imaginable and some not.

By the time you get within ten spots of the head of the line, you'll need to know what you want. That's when Gary Orman, proprietor of Hyde Park's deli empire, greets you and begins his interrogation.

"Hi, whatcanIgetcha? Roast beef, corned beef, pastr--Corned beef? What kind of bread would you like that on? Mustard, mayo, lettuce? Suurre, something to drink with that? Suurre, steprightup. Hi, whatcanIgetcha?"

When he's really cooking, Gary moves through the line at around six orders per minute, scribbling them on a little white pad. Every so often a small Oriental guy dashes out from the direction of the high deli counter and Gary hands him the top few sheets. Meanwhile the line is not only moving, it's growing.

A few moments later, you're in front of the counter, a few feet from organized bedlam. Up to a dozen Oriental guys are lined up facing you behind the glass, with blurs where their hands should be. In the midst of shouted instructions flying back and forth in at least two languages, knives and tongs flash dangerously close to three pairs of hands as they construct your roast beef on rye with mustard, Swiss cheese, lettuce, no mayo, and extra pickles in a matter of, quite literally, 15 seconds. A moment later, the wrapped and halved sandwich has passed through more hands to the cash register, where it is bagged and put in your hand just as you reach for your change. You've been in line less than five minutes.

Every weekday for the past two decades, variations of that scene have played to generations of Hyde Parkers at first one, then two, then three and four locations. In terms of gross revenue, labor force, or pastrami sold per capita, the Morry's empire is undoubtably the largest commercial operation in the neighborhood, and has been for some years.

Since last winter, while college students, Billings Hospital staff, and Bret Harte elementary school kids pile into the various Hyde Park Morry's delis, an entirely different kind of crowd has been lining up in the Stage Door Express, on the third floor of the Civic Opera Building: Morry's has gone upscale.

A Hyde Parker walking into the Stage Door during the lunch rush will instantly recognize it as Morry's: Gary is taking the orders, and the Guys are running the line right behind the glass counter. But that's only at first glance.

Instead of Morry's standard, albeit remarkably clean, deli decor, the Stage Door features the kind of brass-and-mahogany ambience befitting its station a few steps from the Lyric Opera's plush box seats.

There's a counter devoted entirely to selling dozens of kinds of flavored coffees and teas, and another selling fancy candies by the pound. The long, narrow dining area is modeled to resemble the inside of a luxury railroad car from a bygone era, complete with little imitation gas lamps over each table.

There's a long, gleaming salad bar, for God's sake, and instead of yellow Morry's T-shirts, everybody working in the place has on matching engineers' caps, black-and-gray aprons, white shirts, black slacks, and big bow ties.

It's yuppie heaven; never let it be said that Gary Orman doesn't change with the times. And every weekday, like clockwork, the place is jammed with pinstripes and padded shoulders.

Every so often, one of Wacker Drive's budding movers and shakers comes into the Stage Door, looks around, and says, "Hey, this is nice. It must be a Rich Melman operation."

"Boy, that burns me up," Gary says with a small grin. "So I lose their order."

He can afford to lose an order or two.

You might say Gary has come a ways from his days selling barbecued chickens on the corner of 47th and Ashland. Since he took over the family deli from his father Morry 12 years ago, the Morry's empire has conquered Hyde Park, established a beachhead in the Art Institute, and moved onto Wacker Drive with a vengeance.

Gary first started selling for a living at 13, peddling those chickens: "I used to give all the Polish ladies a plastic flower with each chicken. I'd sell 200 on a Saturday."

Morry was working for his father, Harry Orman, in Harry's poultry stores. There were eight Orman stores, plus poultry departments in grocery stores. But the coming of supermarkets, selling chickens for half of what Harry could, doomed the family business, and by 1966 Harry was bankrupt.

Morry Orman opened Chicken A-Go-Go, a take-out place, in a tiny shack at 56th and Lake Park. For about two years, with the help of Harry and sons Gary and Bob, Morry sold fried chicken to truck drivers, cabbies from the Yellow Cab garage a block away, and other impatient gentlemen.

"See, Morry was hard of hearing, but he insisted on taking the orders," Gary recalls:

"'Gimme a half chicken.'

"'What's that?'

"'I said, gimme a half chicken.'

"'What's that?'

"'I said, Gimme a half chicken, dumbshit!'

"'Who're you calling a dumbshit! . . .'

"Morry had a helluva temper, and me, Bob, Harry, and him would be brawling with each other behind the counter."

Not a lot of chicken was actually being sold, and then a grease fire put Morry out of business. "We walked out of there with $12.50 to our name, and 80 percent of Morry's lungs burned with emphysema."

Morry then took what was to be a fateful step, hooking up with David Berg & Company, one of the biggest sellers of hot dogs, Polish sausage, and the like in the midwest. The company found him space in a building near Michigan and Chicago avenues, and set him up with a hot dog stand. But two years later, that building was torn down to make room for a parking lot.

Down to his last $400 this time (the Ormans were gradually getting the hang of bankruptcy), Morry discovered a decrepit storefront at 1603 E. 55th St. with rent of $110 a month. The first Morry's deli was born there in 1971.

Within a year or two, Morry's was thriving. I remember, when I was attending Bret Harte in the early 70s, joining the mad noontime rush down the alley that led from the school to Morry's. The appeal was simple, the same principle that makes Morry's succeed today: good, basic deli take-out food at rock-bottom prices and service fast enough that no more than five minutes of our precious lunch period was wasted in line.

Gary, meanwhile, had struck out on his own, landing work as a paste-up man for the Suburban Trib. After a year of that, he recalls, "I wasn't going anywhere. So [in 1970] I answered an ad for the American Hospital Association."

The AHA, which needed new blood in its ad department, told this 23-year-old with no experience to get lost. But as a courtesy, they did explain their problems to him, the biggest being their floundering trade magazine, Hospitals.

Gary went back to Tribune Tower and spent the night designing a campaign--slogans, layouts, the works. He took it in to the AHA the next day and he wound up the AHA's assistant director of advertising, and promotions director of the magazine.

"We took three years' advertising budget for the magazine and spent it on a big national advertising campaign. We turned that magazine into the number-one trade magazine--doubled the circulation."

Old-Timers at the AHA remember Orman as a ball of fire. They also remember him breaking the budget. Gary was fired in June 1971.

Then a downtown art studio hired him. "It took me six months to make a sale; I was in debt up to my tush. In a year, I was bringing in more business than the partners."

Two of the firm's partners had a falling-out and split. Gary went with the partner who had hired him and "stood by me" in that first six months, bringing his accounts with him. But he and his boss soon had their own falling-out.

In 1973, at age 26, he founded his own studio, "Gary Orman & Associates."

One day, "I got a tip and a ride to Appleton, Wisconsin, to design a new passbook for Appleton Building and Loan, which was just changing its name to Home Savings and Loan Association. I got the account, designed the passbook, and met the president, George Beckley.

"He looked at me and said, 'What do you think the biggest problem in America today is?' I said, well, I don't know, ah . . . , and he said, 'Communist infiltration in the Catholic Church hierarchy!' I kinda nodded my head and said, 'sure.' He hired me on the spot to manage all his advertising."

Beckley, it turned out, was the biggest television advertiser in northeast Wisconsin. "We'd hire some pretty girls in Chicago, and take 'em up to Green Bay for the shooting. George would be in all the commercials, this 70-year-old man surrounded by the girls, and then he'd take everybody to his club for dinner and a party."

Eventually, Beckley was "retired" and Gary fired. He arrived back in Chicago with "a ton of cash" and a growing distaste for the advertising world. "It's all parties--I never did any work. I had to kiss too many tushes. I decided to go to work."

Gary had the notion of starting a deli on the North Shore, so he arrived bright and early at his father's place one morning in 1976, to watch the operation and learn the ropes.

"Dad said 'Keep an eye on things' and left. By one in the afternoon, we couldn't find him anywhere." Morry was at home, suffering with a serious prostate condition. "In the ambulance, the last thing he said to me was, 'Watch the damn register!'"

With Morry in the hospital, Gary soon took over the deli operation. "That place was wild. See, the kids from Bret Harte never realized that Morry's was a tough place; we had the same customers as Chicken A-Go-Go. That original crew used to carry guns to work; we had fights every day. It was like a wild west show in there."

In 1978, another grease fire gutted the storefront. Morry had never bothered with insurance, and his relations with the landlord were poor; the situation looked bleak.

But Morry's was already so popular in Hyde Park that the University of Chicago stepped in and helped the Ormans get the space back and set up again. A year later, university officials approached Gary about a tiny space in the University Bookstore on Ellis Avenue that had been slated for vending machines: "You want it?" Morry's Too was born.

A large deli had opened up a couple of years before at 55th and Cornell, only a half block from the original Morry's. By 1981, the competition from Morry's had just about put that place out of business. Gary made a "very low" offer for the space, and to his surprise it was accepted. He started laying plans for Morry's Three, aiming to open the biggest and best deli Hyde Park had ever seen.

Come May of 1982, Gary was getting ready to open for business, which is when I came into this saga. I was just another college student looking for summer work, and on a tip I walked into the half-finished store. I made the mistake a lot of people make: I thought this guy in dirty jeans and a T-shirt was one of the hired help. I asked for the owner, he said "You got him," and I asked for a job.

Gary looked me up and down and asked, "Say, have you ever worked in an ice cream parlor before?"

As a matter of fact, I had. Gary, it developed, planned to open a small ice cream parlor in the back of his new deli, and knew nothing whatever about running one. That made us even, since I knew nothing about running much of anything. A week later, I was manager of the ice cream parlor.

It was an interesting summer; the Guys saw to that.

"The Guys" is what Gary calls the several dozen Thais who have made up 90 percent of the deli work force since the late 1970s. The first, a Mr. Raphi (Americanized to Robby), walked into the original place in 1971 and asked for a job; he worked for the Ormans for more than ten years as a cook. When an opening appeared, Robby brought in a friend and fellow immigrant, and then another, and before long, Thais--with a few Cambodians mixed in--made up most of the staff.

All but a handful of the Guys are male, and most have come to this country as students. They're great workers, tireless and dependable, and have become something of an extended family for Gary. He has thrown bachelor parties and baby showers, provided interest-free loans for tuition, and Gary's brother Bob, an attorney, helps with legal problems. Gary also pays wages substantially higher than your average fast-food place. The Guys, in turn, are fiercely loyal to him, and veteran Guys manage the various delis.

They're mostly in their early 20s, and their general interests include the opposite sex, beer, girls, their sports cars, women . . . They love the land of the free, reveling in its freedoms with a gleeful glint in their eyes, as I learned that summer.

The Guys, I discovered, were fascinated by American women; apparently there aren't too many buxom blonds in Bangkok. A tall, thin Guy would lean across the counter toward a startled U. of C. student and ask, "Hey, you got a boyfriend? No? How about me? Or him?" Sometimes it would be just a broad Hiiii!! accompanied by a big friendly grin, or they'd ask for her name; they never forget one, either.

I overheard one student say to his friend after watching some of this, "The spirit is willing, but the moves need work."

Gary, I'm afraid, did not do his utmost to discourage these efforts. He'd stroll over to somebody during a slow moment, drape an arm over his shoulders, and ask, "So, Disco Tony, how many times last night? Six? Seven . . . ?" Or: "So, Su Pan, how's your father these days? Still running that house back in Cambodia . . . ?"

One of the people we hired for the ice cream parlor was a college classmate of mine, also in Hyde Park for the summer. Kate is blond and attractive, and apparently was the first American woman ever to be on the same side of the counter as the Guys.

Within a matter of days, Joe, one of the younger Guys, openly confessed his undying ardor; not that he had much choice about going public, since Gary made sure everybody knew about it as soon as he found out.

Then Gary started a special that required customers to bring receipts from the front register back to the ice cream parlor. And guess who was working the register? Receipts started coming back with "Joe love Kate" scrawled on them.

Kate, alas, was spoken for, but by the next summer, the ice cream parlor was staffed almost entirely by female college students. Joe got over his heartbreak.

One thing I often envied the Guys for was the fact that they could communicate with each other without anybody else in the room being privy to the conversation. I noticed that after dealing with a particularly slow or otherwise annoying customer, a Guy would yell the order down the line in a long stream of Thai. I assumed he wasn't just describing a corned beef sandwich.

For a while, Joe's teenage sister worked in the ice cream parlor. One evening near closing time, the Guys had what was obviously a good bull session going behind the deli counter a few yards away. Suddenly Joe's sister blushed crimson and started giggling uncontrollably, as the Guys burst into raucous laughter. I cajoled her to translate what was being said, but she would only say that "they're giving Joe a lesson about girls . . ."

Language, though, is a two-edged sword. The Guys man each station in the Morry's assembly-line-style sandwich construction system, including the taking of orders. That is when the fun starts.

The Guys all received English instruction in grammar school in Thailand, they tell me, but few could be called fluent. Besides, Americans don't speak textbook English. In particular, black teenagers give the Guys fits. Each Guy has his own tale to tell, with a wondering shake of his head, about a confrontation with your average rude teenager speaking street slang.

A friend of mine once tried to order fried clams: "Five flied clams?" "No, just one order." "Five flied clams, right?" "No, I only want one order of fried clams." "Gimme five flied clams!" She gave up and split the five orders with me.

I once watched, with mounting amusement, as a Hyde Park matron addressed a long and complicated order to a Thai woman who happened to be sweeping in front of the counter, concluding with, "You got all that?" The elderly woman, who didn't speak a word of English, nodded wisely and summoned Disco Tony, who asked, "Hi, whatcanIgetcha?"

Being around Gary so much, the Guys naturally pick up his mild Jewish accent. Nobody ever says "yes" in Morry's; it's always, "Suurre . . ."

Some of the Guys who are less sure of their English take orders by listening for key phrases; so when a customer asks "What's a bratwurst?" they'll hear the word "bratwurst" and start fixing one.

The Thai community in Chicago is, of course, large and growing, and sufficiently established that there are a number of Thai bookies in the area. This helps ensure that the Guys won't get ripped off unduly in the pursuit of their second greatest passion: gambling. My friend Big Art once showed me a glossy, full-color magazine published in Thailand and devoted entirely to betting on the National Football League.

Though he protests that "I'll always be a kid from South Shore," Gary has lived in Winnetka since his advertising days: "Yeah, I always wanted to live on the North Shore and pollute the neighborhood." He has been married for 18 years to the former Bonnie Rubins: "I was married on Thanksgiving Day with no money, wearing the same shoes I used to chop chickens in. My father-in-law stopped the wedding and got me a pair of shoes; then he charged me for 'em."

One July Fourth, Gary invited the entire Morry's staff to invade Winnetka for a barbecue. "There were all the Guys, sitting out front on their cars, blasting rock 'n' roll, drinking beer, throwing Frisbees, making a helluva noise," he recalls with great pleasure. "People drove by with these shocked expressions on their faces.

"Finally I saw the guy across the street standing on his porch glaring at them. So I walked over, and he said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I'm selling--to them.' He said, 'You wouldn't!' I said, 'Hey, it could be worse, right? They could be blacks.' He turned white as a sheet."

The senior Guy, both in tenure and in responsibility, is named Chuchat Phamornsuwana, which is why he has everyone call him Chu. About Gary's age, married, and raising two kids, he started working for Morry before Gary did, 17 years ago at the original Morry's.

I asked Chu what the difference was between working for Morry and for Gary. He said, "They both crazy!" and laughed. But Gary, he said, "is a better businessman."

For the past several years, Gary says, Chu has been "my right-hand man," handling hiring and scheduling the Guys, among other things. Every time Gary opens a new deli, Chu manages it for the first year or so, until it's established, by which time Gary is generally plunging into a new operation.

As Big Art said, "He always got something going, and it always make plenty of money."

The summer of 1982, when I went to work for Gary at the brand-new Morry's Three, Gary was already negotiating with the U. of C. to take over the school's chronically bankrupt sweet-and-sandwich shop and main student dining hall--known as the C Shop and Hutch Commons. They occupy a large space on the first floor of Mandel Hall, at 57th and University Avenue. "I was about the 15th person they asked," Gary said. "Nobody else wanted any part of it."

The next spring the deal was struck, turning the entire operation over to Gary. But the university wouldn't let him start remodeling until March 21, and told him to open for business March 28. Those seven days weren't much fun.

"The place was a shambles. We had to start cleaning from the ceiling down, and I paid an exterminator $500 to get rid of everything that was crawling around in there. We got the ice cream freezer, pop case, slicers, and all that installed, and I had to run extension cords under the counters because the wiring was shot . . ." But "Morry's Temporary Food Outlet" opened on March 28. That summer, Gary hired me again to run the ice cream part of that operation.

The summer before, when he was opening up Morry's Three, Gary simultaneously turned the original Morry's into "Morry's Fried Fish Palace." I, for one, wondered why he was pouring money into it, seeing as he knew nothing at all about selling fish.

I shouldn't have wondered. It turns out he had had his eye on the university deal all along, and by late 1983, "Morryland" (his word) opened in Mandel Hall, featuring deli and hot-dinner service, fried fish included. The C Shop became a huge ice cream parlor, with two brands of ice cream, candy, and assorted other sweets.

The original Morry's then became El Lugar, selling Mexican take-out food. It's not franchise-style fast food: Gary hired a Mexican chef to run the place, making everything from scratch, "but fast."

Next came "Chez Morry's," a catering business. Gary hired three chefs from a prominent downtown caterer, and stole his catering director from the Union League Club. "It's very, very elegant," he says. "We cater events at the museums, the North Shore resorts, and all that."

Having heard about Gary's success at the U. of C., Art Institute officials a couple of years ago hired him to run the lunchroom at the School of the Art Institute.

By last year, as Gary tells it from his cluttered desk in the Stage Door, "I was tired of hearing people say to me, 'The only reason you're doing well is you've got a captive audience in Hyde Park.' So, I decided to come downtown" with a deli.

"I was walking around looking for a location for four or five months. One day, I was looking at a place on Wacker and I heard this was empty, that there was no business around here."

While Gary was in the Civic Opera Building asking about the space, Dino D'Angelo, the building's owner, happened to walk in. "He asked me what I wanted to do in there, and I told him about Hutch Commons and the C Shop. It turns out he went to the U. of C.

"I went back to campus, and guess who pulls up in his limo? He gets out, and says 'You actually work in the place?' I said 'Sure, why not?' He said 'Kid . . .'"

Gary got the lease, and carte blanche. And once again, he was moving into "a mess. It took us 12 weeks to clean it up and fix it up." He hired an architect, who came up with the railroad coach concept, and the Stage Door Express opened last December.

That's only the beginning: "I originally just came in to serve corned beef, and it blossomed." He is taking over the Civic Opera Building's various bars and concessions, as well as the food and liquor service for the tony Opera Club in the basement, where Lyric operagoers gather for cocktails after each performance. He will also be catering various black-tie gatherings in the building.

The as-yet-unfinished portion of the 7,000-square-foot Stage Door space will become an upscale bar, aimed at capturing the yuppies who eat lunch there for after-work drinks.

"Scary, isn't it?" Gary says with a shake of his head. "When I started, I didn't have a bank account. Now, if I drop dead, half the lawyers, accountants, and bankers in Chicago'll go broke."

Unfortunately, Morry never got to see all this: he died on Father's Day, 1981. But his name lives on.

"See, none of this would have happened if it weren't for my parents," Gary says. "Every time Morry got near to making it, something would happen to him, like the fires, but he never gave up. The first year he had Morry's, my mother supported the place by working as a secretary downtown.

"My brother Bob helped a lot; he has a PhD, but he worked in Morry's before going to law school. And Morry had 15 percent lung capacity, but he never missed a day until I put him on that ambulance."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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