Ben's deli-restaurant is the oldest delicatessen in Montreal. ((Radio-Canada))

Employees at Ben's restaurant-delicatessen are turning to the public to help save the Montreal smoked-meat institution, which essentially shut down last summer because of astrike.

Workers walked outJuly 20 to protest what they calldeteriorating work conditions at the famous downtown deli, known for its sandwiches and brightly surreal decor.

On Tuesday, they rallied in front of the 98-year-old restaurant, on the corner of de Maisonneuve and Metcalfe streets, with petitions and smoked-meat sandwiches in hand.

The waiters said it's unbearable to work in the deli.

"Inside, in the summer, we don't have no air conditioning. Winter, there's no heating system. We have no toaster in that restaurant, and cutlery, we don't have," said Charles Mendoza, president of the CSN-affiliated union representing the waiters.

The union wants a new work contract for the deli's 22 employees, that includes a raise and better benefits.

The union also wants Ben's owners to inject some money into the Montreal institution, which boasts an eclectic parade of famous customers, from Bette Midler and Liberace, to René Lévesque.

Ben's is part of the city's landscape and its appearance should reflect that heritage, said Robert Mayrand, who has waited on tables at the deli for 52 years.

"To me, it's an institution after 98 years. It's going to be 100 years intwo years. To me, I feel bad to make it close this place. If they close or if they reopen, it will be very nice because I will go back. I don't care."

The union and management are in mediation, but so far there's no sign of a compromise to end the dispute.

Ben's owners could not be reached for comment.