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Swan song for chicken salad

Cordell's is up for sale

Three weeks ago, Dean Cline was predicting that The Bridgeway psychiatric hospital in North Little Rock would soon be filled with people in agonizing withdrawal from Cordell's chicken salad. He was making a joke, but tears came to his eyes when he revealed that the deli, a Little Rock institution, might have to close in the fall, when a loan he owed the late Betty Lile would have to be paid. Since then, a prospective buyer for the building made inquiries, and Cline thought for a while that proceeds from the sale would let him settle his debt and move Cordell's to a new location. On Monday, though, Cline said the building's still for sale, and so is the deli. Cline was due to pick up, in October, half the payments on a loan made to him six years ago by the late Betty Lile to keep the business open. Since her death this spring, however, her heirs have asked to be paid in full. Cline says he's prayed over whether to keep the deli open, and thinks it's time to let go. "Twenty-seven years is a long time," the 42-year-old Cline said of his tenure at Cordell's. Lile's support of Cordell's wasn't widely known, but her support dates back to a day in the 1960s, when she found owner Cordell Dougherty weeping in the back of the deli, distraught over finances. Lile persuaded her husband, prominent businessman Brick Lile, to keep Cordell's going. He bought part of the business and financed its move from the corner of Hayes Street (now University) and Kavanaugh Boulevard to its present location at 1500 Rebsamen Park Road. There it thrived, building on its reputation as the place to go for great chicken salad, "incomparable" potato salad (as the Arkansas Times once called it), peppered beef and sympathy trays of meat, cheese and bread. Cline's father, Don, a long-time employee, bought Dougherty's share of the business in 1972 and the Liles' several years later. In 1996, Don Cline retired and sold the business to Dean Cline and partners Frank and Todd Hickingbotham, and the trio planned a move to West Little Rock. That idea, and the business relationship, fell through soon afterward, however, and Dean Cline's need to buy out the Hickingbothams put Cordell's on shaky ground again. Re-enter Betty Lile. She co-signed a loan Cline took out (secured by the building) to pay off the debt and took out another in her own name. Cline agreed to pay the interest on Lile's loan for five years, assume half the payments the sixth year and the full payments the seventh. He was to assume half the payments in the fall. Cline, 42, declined to make public the amount owed on the loan. But he called it a "sleep depriver." Cline believes the deli is the oldest of its ilk west of the Mississippi. In the 1950s and '60s, shoppers seeking frozen quail or British pickles or fancy knives and salad bowls went to Cordell's. In the corner of the shop, an electric toy coffee-drinking man - made in Germany in 1920 - poured coffee into his cup, drank it, moved his eyes, put his cup down and filled it again. But Little Rock grew, new gourmet stores opened, and many formerly hard-to-find items - like cheese straws and fancy coffees and salad dressings and beignet mixes - went mainstream to the shelves of Kroger's and other grocery stores. Wide spaces separating the lobster bibs and chop frills and the dough gloves on Cordell's shelves and a cold case full of sodas instead of imported cheeses reflect its current struggle. It was hard to understand the deli's woes at a recent Friday lunch. The place was swamped (as a dozen-table place can be) by fans of the day's hot special - cabbage and meatloaf and potatoes - or chowing down on old favorites. Cline ran from table to table, his only help his son - the third generation of Clines to keep Cordell's trays going out and the roast beef sliced thin. Betty Lile and Cordell Dougherty were the deli's "two mamas," Dean Cline said. While he entertained a notion he'd be able to keep their baby alive for a while, he now says it will be up to someone else to keep the potato salad coming.

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