When The Shit Hits The Fan In a Deli



We bought a deli, in Port Jefferson, New York. It was right across the street from where the ferry to Bridgeport Connecticut docks. There was also a marina, a hotel and several restaurants in the area.

Owning a deli is not as glamorous as you might think. The work is hard, and the hours are long. I never worked in the food industry, my partner who was also my husband was a certified chef he had worked in the food industry for many years. I worked as a general manager for a auto dealership for over ten years. I thought I was going to sit at the cash register and take in the money. I knew nothing about the food industry. I could handle the bookkeeping for the deli with no problem, and of course take in the money, which I thought Mike meant when he advised me he would need my help. “Of course, I am now your partner. This is our dream not just your dream.” I answered him with a loving smile.

The store had to be cleaned and sanitized from top to bottom. Mike ordered food from the purveyors, replaced the tables and chairs that we inherited from the previous owner, purchased two more slicers, a new scale and cash register. In the back of the deli there was a stove with six burners, a grill and two ovens. The kitchen also contained a triple sink, a pizza oven, a long stainless steel work counter, a fifteen by fifteen walk-in, a desk, and a wall with shelves to store supplies such as paper and plastic cups, paper plates, plastic containers for take out food, napkins, plastic forks, knives and spoons, and other paper goods that we would need.

I assumed Mike would do all the cooking and ordering of food and supplies, we would hire a couple of people to work the front counter and that would be it. I didn’t realize I was assuming myself right into Hell. We decided to offer catering to our customers. I was having dreams of grandeur about our future, however was snapped back to reality the day we opened.

It started with the cleaning. I never saw so much filth and congealed cooking grease in my whole life, and Mike actually expected me to help clean this up. I suggested a cleaning company, but Mike just laughed at me and handed me a scraper, and a pair of rubber gloves. Overnight he turned from a quiet funny guy into a Drill Sargent. He barked orders at everyone, including me! I looked at him and wondered who is this man and where the hell is my husband?

I decided to chalk it up to nerves and did what I was asked to do. The workers did as they were told, and by the end of a week the deli was spotless. The shelves were full with supplies, the walk-in was spotless and organized, loaded with soda, water, beer, juices and perishable foods. Mike used a marker with indelible ink and put dates on all the food and supplies in the walk-in, so everyone working could rotate the supplies properly. The front of the deli had a cold-cut case and a station where we kept hot food. There was also a refrigerated case for cold food, potato salad, cold-slaw, tuna and egg salad, chicken cutlets, and several other salads.

Everyone including me had to learn how to use a slicer and clean it, how to use a knife while cutting a roll or bagel, or slicing a sandwich in half. The thickness that the cold cuts should be when slicing them. A coffee station was set up and there had to be a certain amount of coffee filters filled and ready to be put in the machine when needed. Mike also put two large ice tea dispensers where the customers would be sure to see them.

The cases had to be cleaned and sanitized every day. All raw meat had to be weighed as it was delivered to make sure the weight was exactly what we were being charged for. All produce had to be inspected for freshness.

I knew I was in over my head the day my husband put a huge pot on the stove and brought out over twenty pounds of ground beef, cans and cans of tomatoes and all the fixings for making meatballs and sauce, and it was all for me!

“You make the best meatballs and sauce, the customers will love it.” He said to me. The words that came out of my mouth next shocked me,

“are you fucking kidding me? I never made that much sauce and meatballs at one time in my whole life!”

His reply was, “don’t worry you’ll do fine, I’ll help you with it, and look I even bought you a wooden spoon.” The damn thing was almost as tall as me! I didn’t realize how much there was to learn about working in a deli, and my feet were killing me on top of everything else.

We had plenty of customers, but standing on your feet all day preparing food, making sandwiches, cutting cold cuts, keeping the coffee brewing, watching for the little thieves that come in and try to steal candy and gum, and a million other tasks. I thought I would lose my mind the first day.

I knocked over a stack of the filled coffee filters and dropped a full cup of coffee on the floor. In the midst of all this my husband asked me to bread and fry the chicken cutlets. I gladly said yes. It was a big mistake on my part. I went into the kitchen and Mike went out front to wait on customers. I walked into the kitchen and there on the work counter sat 40 pounds of raw chicken cutlets just waiting for me. I called my husband back into the kitchen.

“What the hell is this?’ I asked.

He said .“Well I thought you needed a break from working the front.” and smiled like he did a wonderful thing for me. I asked him if he was loosing his mind. I walked over to the desk and sat down in the chair. I lit up a cigarette and said.

“ This is called a break, I will see you in fifteen minutes, and I will be working the counter just in case your interested.”

He mumbled something and I said,

“kiss my ass!”

Working in that deli I used language I had never used in my life, well almost never. Our dream of owning a business started out as an adventure, it was fast becoming a nightmare.

Two years later we sold and we were out of the Deli business. My husband went back to work in the Hotel Industry and I ran at full speed back to a desk job.



8 thoughts on “When The Shit Hits The Fan In a Deli

  1. Hi Pat, I’d call this a cautionary tale on how NOT to set up a business! A tale with Kafkaesque overtones as it seems to have been a nightmare from Day One for you, with Mike morphing from funny guy into drill-sergeant. Oh dear, he certainly got the rough edge of your tongue, didn’t he? Not much fun for him either, I guess.

    But we live and learn. We profit from experience. And no doubt there’ll be readers of this piece who’ll profit from YOUR experience – readers with entrepreneurial leanings who’ll now think twice before diving into something without having it all mapped out in advance, with roles and duties clearly defined.

    I’m just glad you got out when you did, a huge relief for you, I’m sure.

    With best wishes – have a wonderful weekend,


    Liked by 1 person

  2. The picture is crystal clear and you got me smiling… And remembering the days so long ago when husband Dan told me to quit my job in NY. “We’re moving to Maine to live off the land!” Thanks for the smile, Patricia. Great story! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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