The story behind the legendary Victor Hugo deli as it prepares to open second store

Victor Hugo to open second deli on George Street. Picture Ian Rutherford
Victor Hugo to open second deli on George Street. Picture Ian Rutherford
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Serving super-packed pastrami sandwiches since 1955, celebrated Marchmont deli Victor Hugo has raised a tantalising hoarding around new premises on George Street in anticipation of the opening of a new outlet.

The Edinburgh institution, known for serving quality coffee and deli delights for 50 years, will now bring continental café classics, like the croque monsieur and delicate pastries, to the city centre. On the corner of George Street and North Castle Street, the deli is expected to open in mid-May.

Owner Karol Rzepkowski, son of the original owners, said it has been a long road but he can’t wait to offer true Victor Hugo hospitality to the city centre.

At the suggestion that opening amidst chain coffee shop after chain restaurant along George Street could be a daunting prospect, eternally good-natured Karol laughed: “I wonder if we’re slightly mad.

“We weren’t sure how it would go down but after putting up the hoarding, the reception has been really great.

“We’ve been working on securing this unit for two years and now it’s finally happening.”

Karol’s parents, both from Poland, first opened Victor Hugo in 1955 before moving to the current Marchmont location in 1969.

The name, although sometimes mistaken for French is an amalgamation of a friend Victor, who died shortly before the deli opened and business partner Hugh. “It just stuck,” Karol said. “My dad’s name was impossible to pronounce for people so they just assumed he was Victor!”

Karol remembers the early days of a being a young boy running around the basement amidst the stock.

His parents then sold the business and acted as landlords to the deli.

It was a chance visit by Karol in 2014, 30 years after he’d last been in, that sparked the return of Victor Hugo to the Rzepkowski family.

“It was looking really tired and a bit sad. I think delis had lost their way a bit with the emergence of supermarkets. It used to be a place where you would nip in and get a couple of 100 grams of brie and a slice of ham but it became difficult for speciality food shops to compete,” Karol said.

He was determined not to let his parents legacy go to waste and with his business partner, decided to try and reinvent the deli.

The crowds agreed.

With pastrami-laden sandwiches, supersized waffles and still “the best” coffee around, Victor Hugo was once again on the lips of hoards of hungry lunchtime customers.

“We were inspired by the delis in New York that are very popular,” Karol explained. “You don’t go in to buy a bit of cheese but to buy food that is slightly larger than life, over the top and that’s based on European food brought over from immigrants. I thought, they’re doing something right so I tried to reinvent Victor Hugo as a deli that is more relevant to today.

“And it seems to be working - we became very busy and customers do seem to love what we’re doing.”

Karol introduced brunch, rye bread and avocado as well as over-the-top waffles and takeaway eggs benedict in a roll.

“Brunch is ubiquitous but if you don’t do it no-one will talk to you,” Karol joked. “And then we thought we’d have a go at opening a new one. We can’t leave it all to the chains,” he laughed.

The deli will serve breakfast and brunch, through lunch and with an alcohol license is also suited to an after work drink over a cheese and meat platter.

“We hope that the deli will compliment what is already there but also bring something slightly different to the area,” Karol added.

And remaining true to the heritage of Victor Hugo, coffee remains top of the priority list.

Supplied by long-standing Edinburgh Tea and Coffee Company, the coffee is roasted to an individual spec for Victor Hugo.

“We have a very particular coffee type which delivers a very traditional coffee flavour,” Karol explained. “There has been a move to speciality coffee, and whilst that is interesting, we mustn’t overlook the fact that a lot of people want good coffee that tastes like coffee.”

And how do the family feel about the resurrection of their legacy?

Although his father has since died, Karol said his mum is chuffed at direction of the deli.

“My parents moved back to Poland but they were both very pleased. It is nice to see something that they started and that was so well regarded throughout Scotland being looked after.”