Herbert A. Caplan, whose Randallstown delicatessen kept hungry customers coming back for the Herbwood, Bubbie's Special and the Three Stooges, died June 26 of pancreatic cancer at his Pikesville home. He was 84.
The youngest of nine children of a wallpaper hanger and a homemaker, Herbert Allan Caplan was born in Baltimore and raised on Pulaski Street.
As a youth, he played in Easterwood Park and later became a member of the Easterwood Boys Club, family members said.
A 1946 graduate of Merganthaler Vocational-Technical High School, Mr. Caplan was drafted into the Army in 1951, serving in Korea with an infantry unit. He was awarded the Bronze Star for saving an injured soldier.
After being discharged in 1953, Mr. Caplan returned to Baltimore and married Roslyn Yaffee the next year. He worked for a short time as a printer for an uncle who owned and operated a printing company.
In the late 1950s, Mr. Caplan gave up his printing career and opened Mr. Chips, a sub shop at Caroline and Madison streets near Johns Hopkins Hospital.
In 1963, Mr. Caplan and his partner, Seymour Bridge, established the Caplan and Bridge Delly in the Liberty Court Shopping Center in Randallstown. After a year, Mr. Caplan became sole owner of the delicatessen, which he renamed Caplan's Delly.
"Caplan's started as a small neighborhood delicatessen with a few tables, but rapidly expanded into a full-service restaurant with catering services and a bakery," said a son, Jerry Caplan of Owings Mills, who with his two brothers worked in the business.
"The Delly quickly became a popular gathering place for people of all ages. On any Sunday morning, Caplan's was the place for families and friends to gather, eat and schmooze," said the son.
Caplan's was also known for its circus decor and the portraits of clowns lining its walls.
With the help of his sons, Mr. Caplan expanded the business with a delicatessen across the street from Woodlawn High School on Woodlawn Drive and another in the Rutherford Industrial Park.
"We grew up in the business. We started as dishwashers and then worked up to waiting on tables and then cooking in the kitchen," said Mr. Caplan.
Caplan's was known for its generous kosher-style sandwiches, most of which were ordered by numbers while others were ordered by name only.
"Especially No. 46, which was corned beef, coleslaw and Russian dressing," said his son.
Other specialties of the deli included the Rozianne Salad, which was named for Mr. Caplan's wife. The chef's salad featured ham, turkey, cheese and was topped with hard-boiled eggs.
The Herbwood (which was the elder Mr. Caplan's favorite sandwich) was composed of four pieces of rye bread, corned beef, pastrami, chopped liver, onions, coleslaw, lettuce, tomato and was finished off with a generous serving of Russian dressing.
Gloria's Tuna was bit more conservative and was made up of bread, tuna, tomatoes and cheese that was grilled.
"Bubbie's Special was half a sandwich that was served with a cup of soup. All of the soups were homemade," his son said.
In tribute to his three sons, Mr. Caplan named a sandwich after them: The Three Stooges.
"It was three half sandwiches, turkey, corned beef and brisket," said Mr. Caplan, whose own favorite was the No. 51. "That was a hot turkey sandwich that was served with gravy and french fries."
Mr. Caplan said one of his father's main goals was to "make people happy, and if you asked any customer of Caplan's, you would know that he succeeded."
He also attributed his father's success in business to an innate sense of kindness.
"Herb was always known as the man who built a successful business off of kindness rather than a business strategy. He put all of his energy into making people happy instead of making himself the most money," he said.
"He was also a great guy to work with. He was very, very funny, and a very optimistic and positive guy," his son said. "He loved talking to the customers when they came in, and he never expected you to do something he wouldn't do himself."
Caplan's Delly won recognition in 1996, when the Deli Project, which was directed by the Judah Magnes Museum of Berkeley, Calif., and the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, conducted a national search into the "history and success of the Jewish food phenomenon once so central to many neighborhood shopping districts," wrote a Baltimore Sun reporter at the time.
L. John Harris, who was director of the Deli Project, told the newspaper that Caplan's chopped liver and whitefish were "among the best served at a traditional deli."
Mr. Caplan helped his sons establish Jel-Cap Vending, and in 1998, he closed the delicatessen.
"Jel-Cap Vending became the new family business," said his son.
Mr. Caplan said his father taught his children the "importance of being respectful and polite to their customers and to one another and knew that everything else would take care of itself."
Services were held June 28 at Sol Levinson & Bros.
In addition to his son, Mr. Caplan is survived by his wife of 59 years; two other sons, Elliott Caplan of Pikesville and Larry Caplan of Owings Mills; a brother, Bobby Caplan of Baltimore; eight grandchildren; four step-grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun