Middle Child is loud.
In pre–pandemic times, the 18–seater Washington Square deli blasts a mix of rap and late '90s rock. Customers flit between diner counter stools and rows of tables, shooting the shit with Jefferson Hospital surgeons and old curmudgeons alike about the Phillies, local politics, and the weather. It was the kind of place Rupert Grint could pass in and out of unrecognized, order a hoagie the size of his head, and blab to the New York Times about.
Now, in the times we’ve grown accustomed to, Middle Child’s loudness has found a new forum: Instagram. Sat at the intersection of a food blog and a finsta, the restaurant deals in cross–sections of sandwiches stuffed with pillowy scrambled eggs and cured deli meats alongside rants. Captions shout in all caps about things you’d sooner see on one of those ‘activist’ pages with the pretty infographics: COVID–19 superspreading, workers' rights, and Black Lives Matter.
The choice, while unorthodox to the neighborhood deli ethos, is exactly the point. As diners are dying, Middle Child is attempting to build a cultural hub out of a sandwich shop for a clientele whose values differ from those of the old men who hold court at corner tables.
“I don’t really care what Middle Child does or if we’re exactly like an Italian or Jewish deli. The idea is just that it feels casual, like those places, and that there's this sense of eternal comfort. It's the kind of place where you could just chat with the person next to you simply because they're sitting next to you,” says 31–year–old owner Matt Cahn, a Cherry Hill–bred advertising copywriter turned deli culture defender and devotee.
Cahn is sandwich obsessed. His memories coalesce around sandwiches—the sloppy roast beef sandwiches he’d split with his dad at relics like Little Pete’s, the Italian hoagies he’d order hungover during college in Boston, the turkey clubs he’d spread with bright, tart sumac vinaigrette at Court Street Grocers, the New York alternative deli that inspired his cooking ethos.
“Sandwiches are about nostalgia,” he says, noting that the best ones he’s eaten are unpretentious and messy. That’s the vibe he hopes to strike with Middle Child’s menu. Cahn and his team aim to make the best versions of the classics, which is done through attention to detail more than anything else. Middle Child only serves BLTs when tomatoes are in season, for example, and their greens are dressed like salads before being squished between two pieces of ciabatta.
Yet, for all this talk of nostalgia and old–timey admiration, Cahn is quick to say Middle Child is “an homage in concept only.” Everything else about the restaurant, from its clip art smiley green logo to sans serif menu (for inclusivity, of course) is designed to appeal to a fresher clientele. One that’s younger, less buttoned–up, and social justice–oriented.
Following a summer of perpetual protests spawned by the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Elijah McClain, Cahn and Middle Child began using their sandwich cult following to amplify social issues. After posting a June 11 Instagram video of Cahn changing the Middle Child website landing page to display “Black Lives Matter” beneath the logo, angry Yelp reviews began flooding in that charged the establishment with, well, being a dump.
“I counted so many roaches on the floor. [The place] is just one roach shy of a roach football team,” writes Yelp user Larry E on June 12. “It’s amazing that the soy boys who run this place discriminate against the Police because at this rate they should just be lucky to get the Tramps to come in.” In response, Cahn screen printed the now–deleted review onto short sleeve tees, with 100% of the sales going to Morris Home, a Philadelphia–based residential recovery program that caters specifically to the transgender community.
Sold at $30 a pop, the fundraiser–cum–clapback has raised over a thousand dollars and is exactly Middle Child’s style: brash.
“I would very happily alienate anybody who does not care about Black lives from coming into my shop. I don't want that dirty money. Actually, I would rather live in a small apartment my whole life and not be making food for people who are fucking racist,” Cahn says.
The summer’s racial reckoning proved that Philadelphia’s restaurant industry is a community divided. As Hungry Pigeon co–owner Scott Schroeder faced public pressure to leave his restaurant after an Instagram post that thanked Black America for “hip–hop and fried chicken” while debating the validity of demonstrations, and the Di Bruno Brothers grocery chain was handing out free sandwiches to police officers, smaller businesses like Poe’s Sandwich Joint were refusing to serve cops.
The question, it seems, isn’t whether or not Black Lives Matter. We know they do. It’s whether or not restaurateurs should be wading into political theater.
“I don't think you have to be outspoken about social justice, but I do think that as the times change and we’re confronted with more Trump–like figures, it does put pressure on restaurants to be more cognizant of their behavior,” Cahn says. “At the end of the day, my job and everyone else’s is just to make good food and keep people happy.”
For Cahn, however, being outspoken is just as much a part of Middle Child’s mandate as assembling Reubens is. The deli relies on community service to connect with customers as the coronavirus closed the storefront, hosting virtual profit shares with BIPOC–owned businesses and a remote gallery viewing to raise money for struggling concert venues.
Middle Child is a deli for Philadelphians, full stop. But it conceives of those Philadelphians as empathetic, earnest, and as glib as it sounds, even a little woke.
“I know my customer. I know the food that we make. I know what they like to eat. And I know that their political views align with mine,” Cahn says. “So I don't need to worry as much about that one cop who hates us.”