Hot dogs are so ingrained in American culture that grabbing one at lunchtime or at a Phillies game is simply a reflex. But once upon a time, hot dogs were unknown in Philadelphia. That is, until two young Jews, Abe Levis and Anna Solo, had the idea to pop a frankfurter on a bun, thus becoming Philadelphia’s hot dog king and queen.
When 14-year-old Abe Levis landed in Philadelphia in 1875, having left Lithuania to escape conscription into the Czar’s Army, he settled into a popular neighborhood for new immigrants just north of South Street (known today as Society Hill). There, he met and married Anna, and wanting to join the thriving South Street Business District alongside many other Jewish-owned establishments, they opened Levis (pronounced “LEV-iss”) Hot Dogs at 507 South 6th Street. With the combination of Anna’s kitchen prowess and Abe’s business acumen, their shop was an immediate success, especially after Anna’s idea to serve frankfurters on small rolls. Expanding on her innovation, Abe ordered custom-made longer rolls to fit the hot dog’s length. Philadelphia had never seen such a combination before, and on the Levis’ small menu of sandwiches, fish cakes, ice cream and homemade sodas, the hot dog was a star (along with its deluxe version: a hot dog and a fish cake on the same bun).
As it grew in popularity, Levis Hot Dogs became the neighborhood’s cultural epicenter. For many years, it served as the de facto Fifth Ward Republican headquarters. On summer nights, the community gathered in the new Starr Garden to watch films projected onto a screen situated on the shop’s roof. More and more locals of the working-class neighborhood turned to Levis for cheap, delicious meals, including their signature Champaign Cherry soda, brewed in the basement and sold out of the Levis’ soda fountain for a penny. According to the Champ Cherry website, in 1950, one devoted Phillies fan swore to drink a glass of the Phillies-red soda each day, until the team won a title. The ritual worked: After hundreds of glasses, the Phillies won the National League Pennant that very same year. In honor of the brew’s magical powers, Abe changed its name to Champ Cherry.
By the 1970s, the Levis children had opened two more Greater Philadelphia locations, and though all three are now closed, Abe’s famous Champ Cherry is still being brewed. So the next time you’re at the ballpark, raise your bun to Anna and Abe — and while you’re at it, do your part to bring home another Phillies victory this season by drinking a Champ Cherry!