Too Much Headache: Harlem’s Corner Stores at a Crossroads

Running a deli in Harlem is difficult work. I know because Rami, the day time manager of Deli Grill and Market, told me. “You’ve got to put at least ten, twelve hours into a business,” he said, in a lull between customers. Rami is friendly and approachable, but catch him during lunch time, and there is no way he’ll have time to talk. He’s too busy frying pastrami. Even as we spoke, he had bacon sizzling on the grill. Many of the deli cashiers who I asked about the deli business told me to come back after hours. “I can’t talk now,” said one middle-aged man, pointing to a long line of customers in front of the register. “I have to work.”

It’s easy to see why running a deli demands a man on deck at all times. Between 116th and 125th Street, Malcolm X sports no less than eight delis — nearly one per block. Sometimes, competitors are positioned on opposite sides of the same intersection. If someone is absent at the counter, a customer can easily turn to a neighboring establishment. “It’s a gamble,” Rami told me when I asked how all these shops can make it. “People invest $80,000, $200,000 in a place, and they lose.” For many proprietors, the strategy seems to be to own several shops, so that the successful ones can make up for failed ventures. “The guy who owns this store has got a few others, and they’re doing fine,” Rami said. “It’s really a gamble.”

Despite the competition, most delis seem to find enough customers to keep business afloat. Perhaps that’s because the corner deli is a staple of Harlem living: people come in for a drink, a pack of cigarettes, a bag of chips, or an affordable hot meal. The delis also serve — to many managers’ chagrin — as favorite community hangouts. Every morning, locals congregate in front of Deli Corp. on 282 Lennox Avenue, sitting in office chairs and before folding, wooden coffee tables, enjoying the shade of the covered sidewalk. Here people sit, talk, and sip cold drinks throughout the day. Although they provide a regular stream of customers to the delis, for some owners, the business isn’t worth the headache. “It’s not a good thing,” said Faud, Deli Corp.’s day time manager, of the hangout, with a twinge of annoyance. The cashier at 121 Lennox Gourmet Deli, a trim, middle-aged man with a graying mustache, expressed similar frustration. “Don’t open a deli,” he told me, thinking that I was planning to open a store of my own. “Open a restaurant. A deli is too much headache — the fighting, the stealing. In two years, this will be a nice neighborhood.”

“A Nice Neighborhood”

Indeed, Harlem is changing, and rapidly. A glance down Malcolm X between 125th and 116th reveals a neighborhood in transition. The street is molting: bodegas, small clothing stores, and delis stare across the lane at elegant restaurants, advertising happy hours and lunch specials. Harlem Shake, which opened in May 2013, lies opposite the canopied hangout on 282 Lennox. According to its website, the diner style restaurant is designed to evoke “Harlem’s culture and community,” with over 200 autographed photos of Harlem celebrities and a “Wall of Fro” featuring the “fabulous afro hairstyles of our customers.” But the clientele who patronize Harlem Shake are very different from the people lounging in front of Faud’s deli. Upper and middle class people of all races and ethnicities sit in the restaurant’s outdoor dining area, enjoying chilled glasses of white wine and the warm summer air. Other recent arrivals include Little Bamboo — a lounge serving gourmet sushi — Sexy Taco, Barawine, and, a few blocks north, Corner Social and Lennox Saphire (serving Eggs Norvegien at $13.00). These restaurants would be at home in midtown, and make Harlem’s gentrification seem a fait accompli.

With the arrival of upscale eating, one has to wonder whether the humble deli will survive. For many deli owners, however, gentrification isn’t a threat, but a blessing. “The neighborhood’s changing,” the manager of NYC Best Grocery Corp. agreed. He is a middle-aged man, with fair skin, a gray mustache, and a soft voice. “I don’t know about other people, but for me, it is good.” He admitted that business was “sometimes good, sometimes slow,” but said that “whatever happens, I thank God.” When I asked him if he thought the Wholefoods opening down the block would hurt his business, he smiled and shook his head. Faud expressed similar confidence. “I’m not worried,” he said, referring to Wholefoods. “We sell different stuff, like sandwiches. And there’s a big line [in Wholefoods].”

Two Worlds, One Street

But it’s not just the merchandise that differentiates Wholefoods from a Harlem deli. What Faud left unsaid is that the deli’s customer base is unlikely to be pulled away by a store like Wholefoods, whose products are more expensive then the local Fine Fare and bodegas. And, Wholefoods doesn’t provide the same opportunities for sidewalk socializing. As one man sitting outside Faud’s deli, who gave his name as Mark, explained, “That store [Deli Corp.] is a cornerstone in the neighborhood. What people are doing over there — hanging out, drinking their beer — you can’t do that over by Wholefoods. People are still going to hang out right there. They’ve been hanging out there for years.” Joining me for a walk down Malcolm X, Mark, who appears younger than his 53 years, shared Faud’s confidence that Deli Corp. is here to stay. “They’re going to be able to last. People come in there, they eat — you can’t sit down and eat in Whole Foods. The little stuff they sell in there — you’re not gonna run in a supermarket for a chips, or a sandwich, or a soda.”

The bifurcated streets, as Mark reveals, reflect split socio-economic spheres. If he’s right, Harlem’s delis will likely last a long time — as long as there are customers in the neighborhood to support them. Indeed, some of the delis have been around for decades. Faud’s store has been around for nine years, but 101 Lennox Gourmet Deli, according to its manager, has been around for over twenty (the NYS Division of Corporations has it registered as a corporation as of August 2010).

I brought up the manager’s suggestion that the store has been around for twenty-three years with the store’s owner. “More like twenty six,” he replied. He is a soft-spoken older man, with a serious demeanor. But when I suggested that his store might be the oldest deli on Malcolm X, his face broke into a proud smile. “No, no — not me. It must be someone else.”

Originally published in WAX Digital Magazine, an affiliate of The Harlem Bee.

Occasional journalist; constantly curious; formerly @YUCommentator and @theharlembee; MA Phil University College Dublin