Employees at a downtown Indiana restaurant were minding their own business a few months back, just scooping soup and heaping hot steak and cold cuts on the customers’ sub and sandwich orders.
A phone caller, from 400 miles away, interrupted the routine to ask if 9th Street Deli was for real.
It was a teacher from Birdneck Elementary School in Virginia Beach, Va., asking on behalf of a class of fifth-grade math students whether their math lesson in money, based on a menu from 9th Street Deli, was the real deal.
Yes, Virginia. There is a 9th Street Deli.
For more than 13 years, Birdneck teacher Jo Anne Coauette instructed kids in the nuances of the decimal system using a decades-old menu from an unheard of sandwich shop. All well and good. Until this year, when a class of 22 students wouldn’t let it go.
“Is this for real?” they demanded.
Coauette dialed the phone number shown on the menu and heard “9th Street Deli, can I help you?” as confirmation.
Owner Josh Muscatello found it equally curious that a school named Birdneck was using his restaurant’s old menu for teaching ‘rithmetic.
Muscatello told Coauette he wanted to meet the class and hear about their fascination with his sub and sandwich shop, and set up a visit to Birdneck bringing tokens of good will from Indiana.
First was a package of 2023 menus, that Muscatello used to teach a lesson in menu pricing, changes and percentages.
Next was a cooler full of meats and cheeses and sub rolls, to serve up the real deal — 9th Street Deli sub sandwiches for Coauette and every kid in the classroom.
Finally were gifts from Muscatello’s 9th Street Deli ownership partners, who also run a school supply business in Indiana, SchoolSupplyBoxes.com. The largely online operation is based on West Pike in White Township.
The origin of the lesson plan based on a restaurant two states away has been a secondary matter. After asking whether 9th Street Deli wasn’t a piece of fiction, the question of how the real-life menu found its way to Virginia Beach seems to only have been asked — and answered — among the teachers.
Once the tale of the connection reached the airwaves, and website and Facebook page, of Virginia Beach TV station WVEC (13NewsNow), it struck familiar chords. Math teacher Michelle Montillo posted on the TV station’s page that she received the same lesson plan from Gwendolyn Tolbert Best, a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, who spent her career teaching in Virginia.
Best joined the commenting in response to Coauette’s remarks on 9th Street Deli’s Facebook page, who said her Southampton County School District students also asked about the reality of the deli when she first devised word problems based on menu pricing in 1999.
Best, a 1993 undergrad and 1995 master’s degree recipient at IUP, told the Gazette of her passion for teaching student about “real world” math.
“One of the things that was important to me was kids had context, that numbers were real,” she said. “I love making sure kids can create their own word problems. That’s where the 9th Street Deli came into play. It was a real restaurant that I loved, and when those kids worked out those problems, it brought back memories of Indiana to me.”
It wasn’t an actual menu taken from the restaurant when she graduated from IUP, Best said. She downloaded it a few years later from the deli’s website.
As she rose within her profession to serve as a teacher leader and a presenter at statewide professional development conferences in Virginia, she shared the 9th Street Deli decimal and pricing unit with untold numbers of other teachers of math.
“Part of getting teachers to love math is to give them rich resources,” Best said.
Coauette was among them and adopted the deli math lessons into her curriculum at Virginia Beach.
In her comment on the 9th Street Deli Facebook page, Coauette called the visit from Muscatello “the highlight of my 20 plus teaching years.”
Muscatello earned some validation for his venture to share real life 24-inch subs with the curious students. Multiple posts on the Channel 13 Facebook page came from IUP grads or former Indiana area residents who shared their memories of dining at the deli.
Best, originally of Sharpsville, Mercer County, said she also relived her memories of studying and student teaching in Indiana by developing lessons based on another area restaurant.
It was in the mid-1990s when she accepted a student teaching assignment at Penns Manor Elementary School and became fond of a local Italian restaurant of some renown.
Somewhere in some Virginia elementary schools, other students have learned to apply real-life math lessons based on another local menu. It’s not known whether they’ve questioned its authenticity.
But, yes, Virginia. If anyone asks, there certainly is a Luigi’s Ristorante in Clymer.
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