Tuesday, April 3, 2012

New in New York: At Hello Deli, Rupert's Finally Got the Goods

Hello Deli is not New in New York, but Rupert as a tshirt and hat salesman is

By Mitch Broder

The best way to meet a beloved late-night TV star is to ambush him while he’s selling a cup of meatball-and-spinach soup.

But then, this is intuitive to New York City tourists, who meet such a star every day by bounding into his delicatessen.
Tourists in New York City pose with this Old New York deli owner.

The star, of course, is Rupert Jee, who, against Mega Millions odds, became a household name in comedy while running a sandwich shop. He took over the shop, Hello Deli, in 1992. The next year, “Late Show with David Letterman” moved into his building and drafted him.

He has since made dozens of improbable appearances on the show, while, with his deli partner, May Chin, remaining a humble proprietor. And lately, along with the air time, he has been entrusted by his network with the “Late Show with David Letterman” souvenir-stuff stand.

Meatball-and-spinach soup has given way to tshirts and hats at this New in New York souvenier shop for Rupert Jee
The stuff used to be sold at the nearby CBS Store, but CBS closed the store, which has become a meat-pie shop. The network offered the “Late Show” merchandise to the likeliest neighbor. So now Rupert has T-shirts, caps, and mugs where his soda fridges used to be.

The stuff attracts more business, which means it attracts more fans. People sweep in all day and greet Rupert as if he’s their best friend. They tell him what they’ve seen in New York and then make him pose for pictures. It’s a wonder he has time to make sandwiches, let alone meatball-and-spinach soup.

The Hello Deli has now become the defacto gift shop for the Late Show with David Letterman“It’s almost like a broken record,” he acknowledged. “They ask the same redundant questions. ‘Do you hang with Dave?’ ‘How long have you been on the show?’ ‘What are your favorite moments?’ ‘What’s Dave like?’” He had just finished acknowledging this when a woman from Toronto swept in and said: “Can I take a picture of you, famous man?” She wasn’t talking to me.

Fortunately for everyone, Rupert’s the picture of composure. He is every bit as accommodating as he seems on TV.  He appears to have limitless patience, unless it’s just resignation. When you meet a celebrity, you dream that he’ll treat you the way Rupert does.

One would never guess that the Hello Deli would be a staple of comedy in America, but this New York city staple is now truly famous.He is nice because he’s doing what he really wants to do, which is to run a delicatessen, not to be a TV star. And he’s nice because being a TV star turned out to be fun anyway, and he recognizes that such fun comes with a measure of compromise.

The fun began soon after “Late Show” premiered in August of ’93, when Dave decided to introduce the nation to some of his neighbors. “I was just too scared to be in front of an audience, so I told the writers not to come in,” Rupert recalled. “Of course, they went against my wishes.

“Six weeks into the show, they brought the cameras in without any warning. Dave interviewed me here first, and then he said: ‘I want to do something special for you, something you’ll remember for the rest of your life.’ So he brought me onstage for a standing ovation. An undeserved standing ovation.”

Or maybe not. Rupert’s good nature made him the perfect character to execute some of the show’s more perilous comedy concepts. In one famous piece, Dave sent him out as a dimwitted waiter and fed him lines designed to drive diners to profanity — which they did.

Rupert Jee of the Hello Deli embraces his stardom at the New In New York souvenier shop
Though he’s on the show a little less often, his fame is undiminished. “But I’ve always carried a simple philosophy in life,” he told me. “If something happens to you, you don’t take it for granted. If people come in every day for pictures and autographs, you just remind yourself that it could have been a lot worse.”

In fact, sometimes he’s on the show even when he’s not on it, which turns out to be every bit as good for business.

“Dave said on the show that if you come in to Hello Deli to purchase ‘Late Show’ merchandise, it’ll smell like salami,” Rupert explained. “Whatever he says sells. That’s the power of television. He called this place a dump one day and, needless to say, the next day the place went crazy. They came to see the dump.”

A sandwich and a tshirt please, at the Hello Deli, deli and tshirt stand.

Get a snack from a star at Hello Deli, 213 West 53rd Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, in New York City.


  1. Surely speaks to the power of TV! Interesting place indeed ~ Thanks Mitch.

  2. Location! Location! Location! Rupert seems like a really nice guy...not to mention, one of the luckiest guys around.

  3. OK, I am sorry to say, that although this is a fantastically written article (of course, what else?), I couldn't concentrate past "meatball-and-spinach soup". And I am sure that is all I will be thinking of for the rest of the day. Now I have to figure out how to make it, because I will bet that Hello's isn't kosher.