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Deli, or Small Business the Arab way

added: 2013-07-23 , category: Discover NY

When I told my Polish friends about doing my everyday shopping at the local deli, they immediately asked: “de-what?”, “de-where?”. It was then that I realized that a place as common over here as gyms and as familiar as trash laying on the streets is practically unknown in Poland. 

Deli – or delicatessen – is a place you come to when you run out of beer or ice cream; when you feel like having a toasted sandwich or a coffee at 2 AM. In Polish the word “delicatessen” signifies something upscale and refined, but nothing could be further from the truth over here. You’ll find a deli at every street corner, and the sheer number of them is really amazing. A deli is the most popular place to buy basic groceries, as well as takeaway sandwiches – you can either go with something available on the menu, or assemble your own composition. Everything here is tasty, cheap and quickly served. 

Entering a deli for the first time, you can think it has been robbed just a couple of minutes before. Its generic look is strictly no-frills. No one cares about its “interior design”, no one worries about general disarray and cats walking down the aisles. Any given deli looks just like another deli down the street. The Manhattan ones may be just a bit cleaner than the Queens and Brooklyn ones, but that’s it.

Deli is open 24/7, it always sports the same furniture and shelves, and seemingly the same Arab guy behind the counter (the businesses are usually owned by Arab families). 

After a few weeks in a new neighborhood you’re already recognizable to the owners of your local deli, so they greet you as if you were an old friend. It may happen that they will ask you if you’d like “the usual” sandwich right after you enter the place. One day I even dared some small talk and asked the owner if he was very tired (you know how eloquent I can be), to which he nodded and said he needs to stay awake till 7 AM. 

Most often deli is a family business and it happens that a single family owes several delis along a single street. Which technically means that the clerks who just finished their shift at “my” deli, go straight to work in a deli across the street. This is not a city for tired people. 

I often wonder if the owners of delis have any other lives besides minding their stores. I hope the real answer is different than the one I suspect to be true.

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