On most afternoons, if you want to find Arlene Wagner there’s only one place to go. She’s in her usual spot, behind the counter at Bub and Pop’s restaurant, greeting regulars and first-timers, occasionally warning them that a full sandwich is really too much for anyone to handle.
Bub and Pop’s has been in its Dupont Circle location only since 2013, but it has the vibe of someplace much older — pictures on the wall, and gargantuan scratch-made sandwiches that seem more fitting for the laboring construction worker than the office employee.
On a recent Monday, though, when those office workers would typically be streaming in for their hoagies, Wagner’s usual spot was empty. The whole restaurant was. She and her family were instead just outside Philadelphia, where a post office was being renamed for her son, Air Force Staff Sgt. Peter Taub. He was killed by a suicide bomber while on patrol near Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan in 2015.
The sandwich shop — named for Wagner’s parents, Mae and Irv, who owned a deli in Philadelphia — is a true family establishment. It was opened by Wagner, 67, and her oldest son, Jonathan, 35, who’d had a career working in more upscale restaurants but always wanted his own place. A Philadelphia kid, hoagies had a special place in his heart and appetite. And Wagner, who was working in event management, took little convincing to help out.
“Like many fools, I had the idea that this would be a fun thing to do,” Wagner says. “It’s a really hard business. … But — and I sound like such a typical Jewish mother — if my son was not such an accomplished chef with an innate sense of the visual part of the food, the chemistry of the food, my job would be much harder.”
The sandwiches are far from kosher; the Hebrew Hammer is a heaping mass of corned beef, brisket, roast turkey and Swiss. It’s named after Peter, who — according to Wagner — once defeated a fellow soldier in a wrestling match in South Dakota, stood up and loudly declared “I am the Hebrew Hammer!”
Since his death, though, that sense of family has taken on a broader meaning, says Wagner. Peter, who planned to join the business when he finished his time in the Air Force, is still present through a large photo affixed to the counter. Other pictures of him and his unit-mates, some of whom were killed in the same attack, line a mantle on the wall. Those who survived the attack have come in as well, and some of the area’s military employees make it a regular stop. When they come in, Wagner is sure to thank them for their service. Often, they thank her for hers.
She was behind that same counter when she found out. They’d just closed up on Dec. 21, 2015, when Jonathan came running back into the restaurant.
“He said, ‘Pete was killed,’” says Wagner. “I looked at my phone and there was a number I didn’t recognize. It was the Air Force.”
They were closed for just a week, reopening the following Monday with a sign out front about Peter. “Might his be the last death,” it read.
“In a sense, part of what kept me together was having to go to work every day,” Wagner says. “It wasn’t like I worked in an office and could take leave. But I was in a fog for a very long time, I think I was in shock for a full year. I put a veneer on, and sometimes now I still have to do that because something touches it off, or just hits you. I try not to go there when I’m working anymore. … Losing a child, it’s just horrific.”
Before the rigors of the military took over, Wagner says, Peter had talked about finally having a bar mitzvah. She says the family was firmly culturally Jewish, but as a single mother — her and her husband had divorced when the kids were young — it was difficult to maintain synagogue membership and Hebrew schooling. For some holidays, they’d attend a Reconstructionist synagogue in the Pennsylvania suburb where they lived.
But Peter’s wife, Christina, has made a point to teach their daughters — now 6 and 3 — about Jewish holidays and traditions, despite her own Lutheran background. For Wagner, it’s been an important way that she and her granddaughters bond.
“She really puts an emphasis around Chanukah and the holidays with books and stories and teaching them the meanings of things,” Wagner says. “She’s really making sure that Pete’s religion is known to his daughters. And when I’m there, I make sure to help.”
For now, Wagner says, the family business is going strong. Jonathan continues to make his award-winning hoagies from scratch. She says he has eight or nine other restaurant concepts floating around in his head, so there’s always a chance he’ll want to pursue something else. At the moment, though, they’re happy where they are.
“I would like to be quilting or with my granddaughters. … But this is very rewarding,” Wagner says. “And it feels like it means something to people.”