A Deli Overcomes Tough Times

Customers enjoy the bright and cheery interior of Tasty Deli. Photo by Willie Diaz
Customers enjoy the bright interior of Tasty Deli.
Photo by Willie Diaz

By Willie Diaz

When you think of a sandwich, most of the time you do not attach a special name to it or try to cram more than half a dozen ingredients into it; it is just a sandwich. But at the Tasty Deli in Washington Heights, sandwiches are given crazy names such as the Charlene, Sloppy Sal or The Experiment.

Just outside the subway stop for the A, C and 1 trains on 169th Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue, Tasty Deli has stood in the same spot since it opened in 1957. Walk inside, and you’ll most likely see owner Santiago “Santi” Francisco happily taking and serving orders behind the counter, surrounded by a small group of employees. He hasn’t always been smiling, though; on several occasions the deli nearly became a victim of the economic downturn.

Francisco started working at Tasty Deli in 1986, moving up the ranks from the kitchen to the front to becoming a manager. When the owner Richard Polio decided to leave, he sold the store to Francisco in 2004.

His routine for running the store on a daily basis does not change much; he awakens 5 a.m. in his New Jersey home, takes his daughter to school and goes to Restaurant Depot for food and supplies before heading for the George Washington Bridge. Francisco usually gets in around 10 a.m. (the deli opens at 6 a.m.), works until closing time at 7:30 p.m. and to gets home around 9 p.m.

Francisco’s employees include his brother, and the dynamic between them is no different from Francisco’s relationship with the rest of his crew. “My brother has his job, the rest have their job,” Francisco said, “Just because he’s my brother” doesn’t mean he also has the right to give orders to the crew. “You can’t have two roosters where there are a lot of chickens,” he said.

The “celebrity” sandwiches the store is known for were introduced after Francisco started to take notice of the repeated orders his customers – many of them students or employees at Columbia University Medical Center / New York Presbyterian Hospital would make. Of the “hot mess” sandwich, for example, Francisco said, “Some of them used to come in and say, ‘Let me get a turkey sandwich, let me get a little avocado, a little basil, a little ‘Jalisco,’ so what I did was take all those ingredients” and put them into one sandwich. The sandwiches typically cost $9.50 to $10.95, and there are dozens to choose from.

The names attached to the sandwiches often don’t have much to do with the ingredients in the sandwich, but they do get people’s attention. One customer, Christopher Urena, said he loved “the atmosphere and amazing staff, I’ve been coming back for the past two years.”
The menu was also expanded to appeal to different palates, with vegetarian options, wraps and salads. Francisco operates his business with a sense of confidence and dedication, a sentiment developed from the tumultuous “roller-coaster ride” he has had throughout his decade as store owner, he said.

After the economic downturn, he was struggling, losing business because “people didn’t want to spend the money they used to.” He said he took loans from loan sharks and credit card companies, totaling nearly $100,000. He lost his second business, Tasty 2, a deli in Newark.

“Everybody kicked me to the curb, my father, my cousin, I continued, and I’m here,” Francisco said, recalling that even his own mother told him, “You’re crazy, your own employees are going to be richer than you.” He decided that “once you give up, you’re dead.” Only a few months ago was Francisco finally to clear his business of debt, and now, he said, it feels like a huge weight is off his shoulders.

Francisco was able to expand his business by offering delivery, especially to the nearby hospital, and allowing customers to order online. As time went by, he expanded the delivery service and embraced online ordering services such as GrubHub, Seamless, Eat24 and Delivery.com. He said those steps “brought everything back to a point that it’s amazing. I have four companies sending me orders from open to close.” Francisco always has orders to take care of when he arrives in the morning, either for catering or orders arriving by fax. Online ordering sites keep track of the orders each month, and at the end of the month they send a check to Francisco after taking 10 to 12 percent. The cut from each check doesn’t bother him because “at the end of the day it works out because you still get more business. That money pays the bills,” he said.

In the future, Francisco hopes to open another Tasty Deli in Inwood, around 216th Street, seeking business from employees at the Presbyterian Hospital Allen Pavilion, the M.T.A. bus depot and local businesses. He is also planning on remodeling the back wall of the current deli, redoing the kitchen in stainless steel and rearranging the counters to make space for more tables. Francisco said his theory is “you spend a little something, get that money back, and invest it in another thing.” And, of course, “Create more sandwiches.”