CLEVELAND - In the world of cartoons, when Popeye opened a can of spinach, he could gulp it down with one wide-mouth opening. But I will bet Popeye, as big-mouthed as he is, could not take down a corned beef from Slyman's Restaurant in Cleveland in a single bite.
Slyman's prides itself on corned beef sandwiches, which are almost as big as the plate that holds them as a server plops it down at your table.
"Quality and quantity," said Freddie Slyman. "The bigger the better," he added, his face turning in a wide grin.
He was short on words because he was up to his wrists putting hot corned beef on rye bread in the restaurant begun by his parents. Freddie has been working there since he was a kid, knowing from his earliest years he would enter the restaurant business.
When his parents, Joe and Mae Slyman, opened the restaurant in 1963, they were appreciative of their immigration from their native Lebanon, they wanted to show America of their thanks. Big freedoms in America were part of their philosophy, so they made big sandwiches for the customers who walked through the door on Saint Clair Avenue at East 31st Street.
During mid-day when the lunch crowd jams the parking lot and the streets nearby, the customers don't walk through the door quickly. There is usually a line from the order area of Slyman's, across the room, through the vestibule, to the sidewalk, and to the corner.
The lines are part of the everyday Cleveland scene. Slyman's doesn't advertise much about the restaurant where the signature meal is corned beef piled about five inches high. It doesn't have to advertise. The city simply knows it is there and knows what it will get.
There are about 600 pounds of corned beef being cooked well before the sun comes up over Cleveland.
"I come here at five o'clock," said Samir Elnahass, cousin to Freddie. He also started working in the restaurant when he was a kid. The place is family-owned with Moe Slyman handling one end of the counter as Freddie and Samir work the slicing machines where the beef is cut thinly and pushed along toward the awaiting slices of bread.
Always near Moe is the Holy Bible with its pages opened to whatever passage he may be reading that day when he gets a break. The Bible is always there.
"Every day is a blessing from the Lord and you stay humble," said Moe. "That's the secret."
Moe has been there since his childhood. The couple which began Slyman's restaurant brought a strong work ethic to their little restaurant. It is really just a big room where customers crowd in, find a seat, and wiggle in. Around the room are photographs throughout the years. There are pictures of the family, all smiling, in the restaurant. There are photographs of President George Bush and Vice President Joe Biden. Both dropped in during their campaigns, looking for votes and looking for corned beef. They found both among the customers and the owners.
Not only out-of-town politicians know of the restaurant. Many people have heard of it. The story goes that many people who fly into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport for a stay in the city first find their luggage and then find Slyman's.
Inside the restaurant at the same time customers from Las Vegas, Kentucky and Taiwan. Each had a huge plate in front of him, eating corned beef as it were they were Popeye opening a can of spinach.
In a few hours, the lunch crowd, filled to the brim with corned beef sandwiches and some of the other offerings on the menu, were gone. However, Freddie, Moe, Samir and the servers and others workers in the restaurant were already gearing up for the next workday. They know there will be a crowd to get in to Slyman's no matter what the weather brings or whatever else happens in Cleveland.