Detroit’s University District has a new takeout lunch spot that specializes corned beef, turkey, chicken, and veggie sandwiches stacked high with all the classic deli fixings — aside from one essential detail. Instead of using slices of bread, the newly-opened What’s the Dill shop at 4088 West McNichols utilizes a hefty kosher dill pickle cut up open hoagie-style as the handheld meal’s vessel.
The pandemic-era project, turned restaurant is the work of Leona Milton, a veteran in the restaurant industry, who came up with the idea to swap out bread for a pickle in 2021 while preparing a party food tray. On Thursday, April 13, Mayor Mike Duggan joined Milton and her business partner and husband Kenny Milton outside of the deli for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in recognition of the shop receiving a $25,000 Motor City Match cash grant to aid in its opening. The Motor City Match program launched in 2015 to provide small business owners with financial and development assistance and real estate options. What’s the Dill is the 147th business to open through the program.
“You go to the other side of Livernois and we have lots of businesses opening, it’s one of the hottest areas in Detroit,” said Duggan during the brief ceremony and news conference, in reference to the many development projects that have unfolded in the Liv6 area just north of What’s the Dill. “What Leona and Kenny have done is come to this side [to a] vacant building [that] used to house a Dairy Queen and they saw opportunity.”
In addition to shaking their hands, Duggan also shared with the small group in attendance that What’s the Dill products will be sold at Meijer. Leona Milton tells Eater that the retailer’s Detroit locations will soon carry a limited line of her sandwiches, as well as jars of her Kool-Aid pickles available in a variety of sweet and sour flavors.
Part of What’s the Dill’s appeal comes from Milton’s attention to detail in highlighting the spot’s commitment to the pickle. Check out her Instagram feed and Milton frequently incorporates green into her looks. Much of the small interior is bright green and deli clerks greet customers with the spot’s catchphrase, “What’s the Dill?” An enclosed deli case displays an array of pickle-themed delicacies, many inspired by input from fans. The Kool-Aid pickles, for example, came at the suggestion of one customer familiar with the tradition, which is said to have originated in the South and made its way, in small numbers, to northern cities like Chicago. Guests can also pick up jars of ranch or hot-flavored pickles, giant individually-wrapped spicy ones, bags of pickle brine-dusted chicharrones, cucumber wraps, and Smickles — a play on sliders involving pickle chips instead of slider buns.
Non-pickle sandwiches are also available. Halved boiled eggs, slices of tomato, and bell peppers all can serve as a What’s the Dill covering. During a cold snap in February, Milton tested out a dill pickle soup recipe at the recommendation of another fan.
Milton grew up with a lifelong aversion to eating bread but also has fond memories of reaching into the pickle jar as a kid to grab a crunchy snack. Why not recreate those flavor memories, but in sandwich form, and without the bread? Milton began testing the city’s appetite for menu items like the namesake What’s the Dill — with corned beef, turkey, shredded cheese, veggies, and seasoning — at small parties, corporate events, and the local pop-up shop circuit. While Milton says her idea to launch a business based on a sandwich made of pickles for buns was met with skepticism, something about that combination of crisp, never-gets-soggy pickle, along with the nostalgia-inducing aroma of brine, and classic cold cuts has resonated with the community.
“People call me crazy all the time but yet, my ideas are constantly being played on the news,” says Milton, reflecting on her journey to business ownership. “Even if I didn’t come out with it, but I thought about it first, and then [I’ll] see it like, ‘you know what, maybe I’m not crazy, maybe they’re crazy, let me just try it anyway.’”