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!

3 responses to “Jewish Gems – How Philly’s First Hot Dog Shop (Maybe) Saved the Phillies”

  1. My Great Grandfather Abe Levis -for whom I am named was born around 1866 and came to Philadelphia from Bialystok in 1880 at the age of 14 spurred by the first wave of Pogroms in the Russian Empire. He was one of many Jewish Immigrants fleeing the Russian empire in that year. If he had come in 1986 He married Anna Solo -who was also from Bialystok about the year 1890. At first they ran a grocery store and then they added hot dogs and soon they stopped selling groceries but added Soda including a rich Chocolate soda (my favorite) and Champ Cherry) ice cream and fish cakes to the menu. The family always used 1895 as the date of the founding of Levis Hot Dogs as that was the year in which Abe and Anna purchased a used soda fountain from John Wanamaker and committed themselves to running a fast food business. Abe in addition to operating a fast food store was also a movie theater owner, a landlord and a Republican ward leader. He showed silent movies from the roof of his restaurant. Thousands watched the free show from Starr Garden across the street. Abe profited in selling hot dogs and sodas to the crowd.
    . Anna died in the late 1920s and Abe died in 1935. I have never heard of the contribution of Levis’s to the Phillies winning the pennant in 1950. I would have been informed as I was at age 7 a die hard Richie Ashburn fan who cheered him on as he exhausted the opposing pitcher by fouling all the pitches that would have been called strikes and walking after a pitcher had pitched a dozen times over the plate and four times not over it.
    The name Champ Cherry was invented by Abe about 1900. His children (Jules, David, Jenny Levis Asher and Joe Levis) inherited the business. Jules( a divorce) died without children in 1953 and his siblings bought out his interest in the business from his girlfriends. A business dispute led to Joe being bought out of the business and he with his siblings permission established a Levis Hot Dogs in Atlantic City. Later he set up a rival store two blocks North of Old Original Levis and that act led to a break between Joe and his siblings so complete that Joe didn’t attend David’s funeral in 1953. The families have never reconciled. One of Joe’s grandsons Jesse Levis was a major league baseball player in the 1990s. I never met him. One of my son’s is an amateur baseball card collector and has a number of Jesse Levis cards but never got his signature on any of them.
    My mother Phyllis Adair Levis Kochin Wurtman was David’s daughter and purchased Old Original Levis form her mother and Auntafter my father died. in 1967. . My mother was Abe’s favorite and she was close to her grandfather and also a success at running Levis’s but after she remarried Sam Wurtman he wanted to retire to Florida and she offered to sell Levis’s to me and to my sister Sara-Ann Kochin Abelson.(who was named for our mother’s grandmother’s Anna Solo Levis and Sarah Ginsburg. We refused I had tenure as a Professor of Economics in Seattle. I was committed to Sabbath observance and Levis’s was not a viable business if it closed on Saturday which was its busiest day .My brother in law had tried running a Levis store in the Northeast Philadelphia and preferred to remain a Professor of Education at Iowa State University. Levis’s was sold outside the family in the late -1980s.

  2. If Abe Levis had come in 1866 (note corrected error) he would have been almost alone as a Jewish Immigrant to the US from Poland.

  3. Abraham levis could not have named a soda champ cherry in 1950 as indicated in your wonderful story about Levis’s and my great grandparents as Abe died in 1935

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