The NYC deli is a staple of New York culture and the backbone of many immigrant family stories. Unfortunately, the boom in rent in recent years and the fact that most delis are independently owned has forced many stores to relocate or close.
The delis that are able to stay afloat have a loyal customer base to thank. L&M Delicatessen and Catering on 80 Seventh Ave., now celebrating its 50th anniversary, is an example of a business with customer loyalty, and a deep-rooted history in NYC to accompany it.
“I’ve seen customers’ kids grow up, and they now have their own kids,” said Larry Xerri, the owner of L&M. “At one point they couldn’t see over the counter, now their kids can’t see over the counter. They come back and they say ‘hello’ whenever they’re in the neighborhood, because a lot of them moved out of state, to school and college. And a lot of them settle down, and that’s the way it is, but when they come home back for the holidays they always say hello. It’s nice to see that I’m still the ‘deli guy.’”
Xerri, 56, has owned the deli ever since his father passed it down to him when he was around 30 years old, a time when Chelsea was much different. L&M has also always been family owned and operated, with most of its employees working there for the last 25 years.
“People like the fact that they can come in and we know their order,” Xerri said. “People generally order the same things, but our cook on the grill, Jay, knows everybody’s name, he knows everybody’s little idiosyncrasies and people appreciate that. At nighttime, Tony’s on the cash register, he knows everybody’s name and what they want. You’re not just walking into the supermarket and staring at a cashier who’s unhappy all the time they’re assaulted by the volume of it. That’s part of the business.”
Xerri’s favorite part of the job has always been the people he meets while working.
“You get to talk to a lot of people who have different types of jobs and interests, and those interests and jobs span across the country,” Xerri said. “A lot of them globally, you meet quite a selection of individuals and people who work on Broadway, certain captains of the business industry, big wigs at Google, as well as other investment bankers, and people who just have regular jobs. They’re solid people who have their own stories, they’re great to talk to, and I’m definitely a people person. So with my ability to talk and see eye to eye with people and get to know them, that’s probably the biggest plus I can say over the years. It’s a good thing, knowing how people are.”
Changes in Chelsea
Chelsea has changed a lot in the past 50 years. Many of the things someone would’ve seen there when the deli opened have gone with the times and new residents and businesses have made their way there. But L&M has lived through it all.
“Character in the neighborhood has changed,” Xerri said. “When we had a high number of gay individuals in the neighborhood it felt like people had a lot more involvement in the arts. The neighborhood used to have character, a lot of character, not that it doesn’t have character now, but it’s a different kind of character. I grew up in the Village as well, not too far away from here. And I attended grade school in the Village, as well as high school. Things change, and this is one of the beauties of New York City.”
COVID-19 has been especially hard on independent businesses, which can sometimes discourage owners and affect their communication skills. But communication is Xerri’s forte, so it’s reassuring to find that L&M hasn’t lost its sense of comfort for those longtime customers.
“It hasn’t affected my relationship with the customers,” Xerri said. “We have 80% repeat business. That’s a neighborhood place, every day, the same 80% of our customer base comes in daily. So it’s a testimony to being in the neighborhood spot, which was exactly what we are.”
This doesn’t mean Xerri and L&M haven’t had to make sacrifices to get by during these times, including shortened operating hours and a lowered stock in certain products.
“In the food business, you can’t offer the selection that you had prior to [the pandemic] because you don’t have as much volume,” says Xerri. “You have to know what people want, and you have to know your customer base. We cut down on our products offered and our specialty foods that we cook. We cut down a great deal, I would say about 25%. Why? Because at one point you had at least 50% of the people in the neighborhood not there and then gradually, little by little, they’ve come back.”
What’s taken an even bigger hit is the catering portion of L&M. Xerri explained that in 2020 L&M only did six catering jobs, a far lower number than their previous year’s number. This cost Xerri a large portion of his overall business: “15%. That’s an easy one. I know, because, right as [the pandemic] hit we were down 15%.”
Other than a loyal customer base and a reliable set of helping hands around the store, Xerri also said he wouldn’t be able to stay open without the help of his landlords.
“I actually have to give a shoutout to the Price Rahav family, because they own our building and they’ve been very fair to us over the years, especially fair in the pandemic. When push came to shove, and there was no way that we could meet the rent like all the other tenants. But they’ve bent a great deal in order to make sure that they didn’t have vacant stores, and that we would still be there.”
Xerri can be found in his deli from morning to afternoon, and welcomes all new and returning customers to fresh cooked food from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
More information for catering services and mobile delivery can be found on L&M’s website: https://www.lmdeli.com/