Jeff & Judes, the nearly two-year-old “Jew-ish” deli and restaurant in Ukrainian Village, will permanently close after service on Sunday, June 12. Owner Ursula Siker, a well-known Chicago baker who previously worked at Hoosier Mama Pie Company in West Town, announced the closure Tuesday morning on Instagram.
Siker, who in 2019 signed a lease for the space on the corner of Western Avenue and Cortez Street that formerly housed the prison-themed burger spot Lockdown Bar & Grill, says the timing of the restaurant’s opening in August 2020 — five months after the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Chicago — and the accompanying rise in food costs, became stumbling blocks the restaurant couldn’t overcome.
“From the get-go, we were never where we needed to be in terms of us being able to stay open,” Siker says. “The still-rising cost of ingredients and the work to make everything was something we kept hoping would level out, but unfortunately that hasn’t happened.”
Known for its dedication to the labor-intensive genre of Eastern European deli cuisine with a touch of Southern flair, Jeff & Judes was a prominent member of the city’s small modern Jewish deli scene — which also includes five-year-old hit Steingold’s, now in Lakeview, and vegan spot Sam & Gertie’s in Uptown, which is temporarily closed for the summer.
Despite Chicagoans’ hunger for items like black-and-white cookies and pickle-brined matzo fried chicken sandwich, Siker has been battling financial and pandemic challenges from the outset. She initially launched the deli as a takeout-only operation out of a pickup window before expanding into dine-in service in November 2020. The restaurant’s most popular items — its thick and juicy corned beef and pastrami sandwiches on sourdough marble rye — ultimately lead to its biggest monetary snag. The staff cured the meat and baked the bread on-site, which, with the rising cost of ingredients, particularly beef, resulted in $18 sandwiches.
In January 2021, Siker took to social media to explain why complaints from patrons over the cost of menu items were disheartening. “We have been told that our sandwiches are too expensive as a matter of principle rather than quality,” she wrote at the time. “Let me be frank; to say this is to directly imply that you do not believe the people making your food deserve a stable life.”
Between the cost of ingredients and labor (employees are paid $15 to $17 an hour, plus benefits), Siker says now, the restaurant lost money with each sandwich sold. In Siker’s view, the situation left her with two options: “We could stop making everything here and [Jeff & Judes] could become a shell of what it once was. Or, we just make the best food we can make as long as we can make it, end on a high note, and switch gears to do something different.”
Siker opted for the latter choice, and plans to go out with a bang on Sunday in what she anticipates will be a busy day of service. She’ll then hand over the reins to Jeff & Judes kitchen manager and baker Hannah Coleman (Little Victories) and front-of-house manager Sam Yar, who will next week announce plans for a new business in the space. Siker will remain involved as a consultant, but it will be from afar: On August 1, she and her partner will decamp to Brooklyn, where she plans to work outside the service industry.
“I just need to remove myself from overseeing restaurants and kitchens for a bit,” Siker says, though she admits that hospitality will probably always be a part of her identity. “The first ‘baby’ is always the hardest to let go of, but I’m so proud of everyone who was involved in the past two years.”
Jeff & Judes devotees have six days to visit the deli and say their goodbyes. Stay tuned for more news on Coleman and Yar’s plans for the space.