Jeff Petcoff on the Passion that Drives Duluth’s Corktown Deli and Brews

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This is the second installment of the Scenic Routes series, done in collaboration with Chevrolet. You can find the first post, a guide to coffee shops on St. Croix Trail and Little Sweden, here.


I’m sitting at the bar counter at Corktown Deli and Brews in Duluth, talking to manager Jeff Petcoff. Our conversation covers carefully-planned sandwiches, quickly-broken-down chimneys, computer malfunctions, and cross-country pig-outs.

At one point, I ask him what his passions are. He says, “I really love coming to work and building strong teams. I like working with food. I love studying food.”

He’s been doing these things for quite some time.

Petcoff washed dishes at a nursing home for a short time in his teens before he took a job at the Duluth Grill with his best friend, Louis Hanson. This was 18 years ago. In the years since, he worked his way up from busboy to general manager to helping owners (and Louis’ parents) Tom and Jaima Hanson branch out with new restaurants. It’s been quite a journey for everyone involved.

The Hansons’ second business, OMC Smokehouse, has become destination dining and it hasn’t even turned two years old yet. Corktown has only been open since June, and word is already spreading about their pastrami reubens and Knuckle Sandwiches. This is after the Duluth Grill was named Minnesota’s best breakfast by People and melted carnivores’ hearts with a pot roast on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

BUILDING STRONG TEAMS

The manager of Corktown Deli and Brews

Jeff PetcoffTalk about good problems: Petcoff says the abundance of talented staff members at the Duluth Grill compelled them to open additional restaurants.

“There was kind of like a ceiling being developed there,” he says. “We had all these talented people working for us who wanted to move ahead, but there just wasn’t room for them, so we decided it was time to maybe take a stab at it and get another location going.”

The first step was purchasing the building OMC Smokehouse now occupies, on Superior St. in Duluth’s Lincoln Park district. Petcoff recalls looking “like a coal miner” every day for about three months while he and the team renovated the space. He specifically brings up a chimney in the building, which they were told by a contractor would take three days to break down. Not even close: Petcoff, Louie, and Tom did the whole thing in one night.

“[The restaurant business is] a get-it-done-now mentality,” he says, “and we just wanted to prove we could do it.”

A paining of a sailor, boats on Lake Superior, and the city of Duluth
Sailors’ life vests were once made of cork. When these sailors shipped in on Lake Superior, locals referred to them as “Corkies.” These sailors would relax in Lincoln Park, earning the neighborhood the nickname “Corktown.”

Louis Hanson oversees OMC and Petcoff is running Corktown. Just as I’ve had servers at OMC Smokehouse explain a collection of sauces to me as if they were their own four-course meal, I haven’t yet crossed a bartender at Corktown who I didn’t want to keep talking to. If you know how I am about playing Angry Birds at the bar, you know that’s saying a lot.

Petcoff leads by example. He fits in our talk between his last rounds of restaurant work and a meal with his family. When I call him with follow-up questions, he’s vacationing in Hawaii. I break into my authentic Minnesotan apology tirade, but no worries, he says.

Working on the road is nothing new, either.

WORKING WITH FOOD

In advance of opening OMC Smokehouse, the crew traveled throughout the United States and consumed lessons from barbecue masters throughout the south: brisket in central Texas, pulled pork and ribs in Kansas City, and hot chicken in Tennessee. Petcoff recalls learning about hot chicken, eating hot chicken, and regretting hot chicken.

“Put the toilet paper in the freezer, is what they say,” he says with a laugh.

OMC Smokehouse has a Tennessee hot chicken sandwich, and yes: if you spend any time wondering whether it’ll be too hot for you, it probably will be. I had it one day after I stood on Lake Superior and let a huge wave wash over me. I was soaked to the core. I ate that hot chicken sandwich and not only warmed back up, but contemplated going back to the lake to let another huge wave cool me back down.

Petcoff says even the visiting southerners lend them praise nowadays. Here’s one example: Southern Living named them Minnesota’s best barbecue.

A grilled cheese sandwich with ham on white paper
Grilled Three Cheese

The team took a similar approach to the sandwiches at Corktown. Petcoff recalls wandering the streets of New York and peeking into the delis and bodegas. They hit Katz’s Delicatessen, Russ & Daughters Cafe, and countless others. They did this for a week in the Big Apple, brought all that experience back to the Duluth Grill kitchen, and began piling it in between crusty baguettes and slices of rye bread.

“I’m the kinda guy that can really eat a sandwich like three times a day,” he says. “I’ll eat a breakfast sandwich, a sandwich for lunch, and a sandwich for dinner if I could. And so I mean, I just have all these thoughts and I’m working with [chef] Conor Maki, who’s in the kitchen over there and the guy just does things with food that are phenomenal.”

THREE SANDWICHES FOR TODAY

Corktown pays homage to their New York studies with a pastrami reuben called Butcher on the Rye. It’s a mess of mustard, a tile-thick piece of Swiss, and an embarrassment of house-cured pastrami that can run three quarters of a pound if you so choose.

There’s the Porcine Princess, with porchetta, red peppers and lemon caper chimichurri on a crusty baguette. This isn’t a sandwich you can wake up in the middle of the night and just make. It’s a calculated sandwich, crafted with care.

I ate mine violently. I sent baguette crumbs flying from the sides of my mouth, like metal shrapnel whipping away from the impact point of a train crash. I did this until the whole sandwich was gone.

The grilled cheese – made with white cheddar, parmesan, and swiss on toasted sourdough – earned the approval of my wife and resident grilled cheese expert. You can add ham or turkey for $2. Do that.

Other sandwiches include a Minnesota Midnight featuring porchetta, smoked ham, swiss, pickles, and mustard; a Superior Submarine with smoked whitefish spread, brined onions, capers, and greens; and a Turko Pestey. Feta, roasted red peppers, greens, and basil pesto join smoked turkey on sourdough.

They serve a salad called The Hipster, which … I mean, just read it. The entire menu can be found on the same page. Sandwiches run $9.50-12 generally. Meats and cheeses are also available for purchase. They’ve got 12 beers on tap, all from Minnesota or Duluth’s sister city, Superior; a few wines, kombuchas, teas, and sodas as well.

A sandwich in a white wrapper on a restaurant counter

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