People thought Lenny Smith was crazy when he told them he was thinking about going into the deli business with his son, Alan.
“A very good friend of ours said to me one day, ‘You’re out of your mind,’ and I said, ‘Well, this is what we’re gonna do,’” Lenny, 84, recalled.
Not listening to his friends certainly paid off. Thirty years later, the deli on Reisterstown Road in Owings Mills that bears his name is thriving, along with three other Lenny’s Deli restaurants in Baltimore. The business celebrated its 30th anniversary in May.
“We’re very proud of the fact that a family-owned business can survive for 30 years. It’s very rare these days,” Alan, 56, said. “Our philosophy’s never changed, just give good service and have nice help and what else do you need? It’s not rocket science… We’re still a New York-style deli.”
Prior to Lenny’s, Alan was working for Jack’s Corned Beef. He had left his job at Marriott to work for Jack’s when a group of businessmen that included members of his extended family bought the store and brought him in to help open more stores and work as a district manager. Lenny was working in the finance department at Gladding Chevrolet.
The origins of the deli go back to a Rosh Hashanah dinner at the home of Alan’s then-fiancée, Amie.
[pullquote]We’re very proud of the fact that a family-owned business can survive for 30 years. It’s very rare these days.[/pullquote]“Somebody mentioned a Jack’s would be good up here, but I didn’t think so … strip centers weren’t our thing,” Alan said, referring to Valley Village, where the deli is located. “We looked at each other, and nobody said anything. And then two days later we gave a nonrefundable deposit to the landlord, and we didn’t even know what we were gonna do.”
The restaurant was small at 1,500 square feet. And although Lenny and Alan didn’t take out salaries for themselves the first several months, after just three weeks, they took on another 1,000 square feet when the space became available.
Things picked up about nine months after opening when the restaurant ran a 25-percent-off special.
“From that minute on, things started to percolate,” Alan said.
Over time, specials became part of the menu, Lenny’s started serving breakfast all day, and more delis opened. The Lombard Street location opened in 1991 after the Smiths took over what was a Jack’s Corned Beef. A location in Harborplace on East Pratt Street opened in 2011. Last September, Lenny’s Deli opened at the new Horseshow Casino.
The signature store in Owings Mills underwent a complete facelift two years ago that included a new logo with a light blue color scheme, electronic menu boards, beige brick walls and a completely redone dining room with new furniture, including larger tables to accommodate bigger groups, and a new hardwood floor.
Not much has changed in 30 years, and that even goes for some of the employees. A wall of plaques above the soda machines commemorates employees who have been with the company for 15 years.
“It’s sort of like a family,” said Shirley Royal, a chef for 21 years at Lenny’s.
Manager Darren Dorsey, a 16-year employee, added, “It’s something like ‘Cheers.’”
When employees hit the 15-year mark, Alan sends them on a week-long cruise for two of their choice with $500 spending money. He said he’s sent about six or seven employees, including Royal, on cruises. Dorsey hasn’t taken his yet but plans to take his wife wherever she wants to go.
“I wanted them to have something memorable that maybe they would never do for themselves,” Alan said.
After 30 years, Alan is still at the restaurant every day, and although Lenny is retired, he’s there a lot.
“I wouldn’t even know how to make a sandwich anymore back there,” Lenny joked. “But you’d be surprised how many people still think I’m fully involved.”
With four stores to their name, including one that isn’t even a year old, do the Smiths have any more plans on their radar?
“No, but the casino wasn’t on my radar either, and it just appeared,” Alan said. “I wouldn’t say I’m never doing anything. You never know.”