A Whitehorse institution changes hands as longtime owners plot their next steps

After 47 years, one of Whitehorse’s best-known family businesses is getting new owners.

After 47 years, one of Whitehorse’s best-known family businesses is getting new owners.

On July 15, Ralph and Sandra Wohlfarth will hand over the keys of the Whitehorse Deli to Larissa Horvath and Vienna Organ, longtime Yukoners and family friends.

“This is basically our third kid,” Ralph said this week, when the News met with him and Sandra and the new owners in his office at the Deli. “And now we’re turning our third kid out into the world.”

Ralph and Sandra said they thought about holding onto the business, which sells locally butchered meat and fresh lunches, until its 50th anniversary. But when they got to talking with Horvath and Organ a couple of months ago, they realized they should seize the opportunity.

“It fit, it was very easy,” Sandra said. “They were clear on what they wanted. We were clear on what we wanted and it meshed.”

For their part, Horvath and Organ are almost overflowing with excitement. They’ve wanted to start a business together for a long time.

“Our dream has come true,” Organ said. “It’s been very surreal for us.”

The Deli is, perhaps, the quintessential family-run business. It was started in 1968 by Ralph’s parents, German immigrants Ilse and Ernie Wohlfarth, in a quonset hut made of corrugated metal. The next year, they started work on the existing building on Hanson Street.

They set up the butcher shop – Yukon Meat and Sausage – in the basement, and opened the Deli on the main floor. The family lives upstairs.

Today, the Wohlfarths keep a photo of Ralph’s parents in their office, along with an album of old clippings and photos. There’s a poster from the grand opening, back in 1968, offering prime rib roast at $1.15 a pound.

Ralph started working in the family business when he was eight years old, crushing boxes and weighing hamburger meat. He later trained as a butcher and sausage-maker and took over the business from his parents in 1997. Sandra came on board when they married in 2000. “Learned as I went,” she said, laughing.

It hasn’t always been easy. When their two children were young, Sandra remembers, the days were exhausting.

“We’d come to work early, then go home, get the kids off to daycare, then we’re back at work, go pick up the kids, feed them, get them in bed, come back downstairs to work…” she said. And while things have calmed down since then, the two of them still work 10-hour days, Monday to Friday.

But the work has paid off. Sandra said the business has grown, year over year, even as the big supermarket chains have set up shop in Whitehorse.

“We just tell ourselves they come and they go and we’re still here,” she said. “So we’re doing something right. So just stick to what we know and continue to do that and it’s worked for us for 47 years.”

With its old-fashioned facade and red-and-white-striped awning, the Deli does seem to have stood still through time.

Inside, the displays of elk smokies, pork schnitzel, German salami and Spanish chorizo are enough to tempt even the most hardened herbivore.

But some of the more modern lunch offerings – the dish of orzo and wild rice, for instance, or the lactose-free edamame salad – do seem out of place in a business with such a traditional feel, one whose shelves are crammed with mustards, olives, pickled beets and asparagus in brine.

That’s what Organ and Horvath are planning to change. They want to make the Deli feel like a modern European cafe, they said. They plan to add an espresso bar and pastries. They’re going to renovate as well, though they say they won’t close the business while that happens. They’re expanding the name, too – soon, the business will be called the Deli Cafe & Eatery.

“We’re upgrading it to the higher end, and the food will be overhauled as well, to a certain extent,” Organ said.

But they promised that the most popular lunch items – the perogies and the sandwich bar, for instance – won’t be going anywhere. The two main butchers, Jurgen Haas and Chris Jordan, are staying on, and Ralph’s going to help out until the end of the year.

“It’s important for us to keep the European aspect that has already been established,” Horvath said. “We just want to expand upon it and update it. Make it a little bit more current.”

As the women spoke, Ralph listened quietly. It certainly can’t be easy to steer a Whitehorse fixture through 20 years of ups and downs, and then to step back and watch someone else take the reins.

But the Wohlfarths are clear-eyed about their decision. Asked if he’s nervous about what may change, Ralph was forthright.

“Of course I am,” he said. “But you know what? That’s part of life, you know, the ‘what-if’ factor.” What if he had kept the business? “Well, I didn’t. I’ve got to deal with it and move on.”

They understand, too, that things can’t always stay the same. Sandra, especially, seems excited by the plans that Horvath and Organ have made.

“It needs to be refreshed and be brought up to date and made current – that’s our new word,” she said. “And I couldn’t do that by myself.

“It needs to be fun, and I wasn’t having fun anymore.”

But it’s hard, too. This business has been Ralph’s whole life, and he’s clearly been thinking about how he’ll manage to let go.

“When I grew up in the business, my parents had a rule at home that work is work and home is home,” he said. “You don’t bring work home. And so when we lock the store door and go up the stairs to our apartment, that’s when we had to leave everything at work.

“And because of that I think I will be able to let go of the business. Just put it out of mind and walk away.”

He paused. “Very small steps at the beginning, though.”

Then he blinked and looked away.

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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