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VOL. 121 | NO. 185 | Wednesday, September 20, 2006

After 30 Years in Business, Front Street Deli Still Going Strong

By Zachary Zoeller

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CHEWING THE FAT: Lee Busby's lively conversation is one of the main ingredients in his Front Street Deli, which he founded 30 years ago. -- Photo By Zachary Zoeller

Lee Busby, owner and lone employee of Front Street Deli at 77 S. Front, says about 75 percent of his business is regular customers, and it's easy to see why people keep coming back to the 30-year-old establishment.

"To participate in all the blarney," said longtime customer Granville Taylor, laughing as he sat atop one of the deli's wooden stools, which accompany the 10-inch-wide, 10-foot-long counter lining the north windows.

While lettuce, tomato, ketchup and mustard may be optional with any of Busby's steamed sandwiches, the conversation and personal service comes free with every order.

"It's because I know (the customers), they like the food and the view speaks for itself," Busby said. "It's the only place Downtown you can eat lunch with a view of the river."

A neighborhood mainstay

The corner outside Busby's little shop at Union Avenue and South Front Street bustles with traffic, both cars and pedestrians.

He describes his normal customers as "hard-working, steady, business people grinding out a living like everybody else," and the tourists, which help comprise the remaining 25 percent of his business, are mostly an exception, he admits.

Taylor, who has been coming back to the deli for tuna fish sandwiches and Deli Dogs for more than 25 years, enjoys "the interaction of the people who come in," he said.

Suddenly a customer swings open the glass door and Busby gets up from his stool, walking to the back of the counter.

"Tuna fish?" Busby casually calls out.

"Yeah," the man replies in a manner that suggests the two have repeated this informal routine many times before.

Front Street Deli at 77 S. Front
In business for 30 years and counting
Former location for 1993 blockbuster "The Firm" starring Tom Cruise

Busby gets a loaf of wheat Wonderbread from a large glass case, and with a knife, he digs out globs of tuna from a re-used plastic container so worn that its brand no longer is visible. He spreads the concoction across the bread, wraps it in wax paper, grabs a can of root beer from the cooler and the transaction is over in less than a minute.

Culinary landmark

No combos are on the menu, just food.

"If people were walking out because of no combos, I'd change," Busby said, chuckling. "It's about knowing the demand, what the public wants. Whatever the tastes are, you put (them) on the menu. If you don't, you miss out."

Contrasting the ever-changing restaurant landscape, Front Street Deli has become a landmark.

"How many places (Downtown) that are not chains can you go to get sandwiches that are what you really think of being a deli?" Taylor asked.

Busby has seen many "chains" come and go - "There's Subway, Lenny's, and what's the 'It's toasty' one? Oh yeah, Quiznos," he said.

The Deli has teamed with one chain retailer, Starbucks coffee, which Busby officially began selling two months ago in 12-ounce cups for $1.55, resulting in a triple in coffee sales, he said.

A Heineken beer tap seems a little out of place, and Busby admits that 95 percent of his beer sales come during Memphis in May.

"The three-martini lunch is unheard of these days," he said.

Rocky Top to Bluff City

When Busby graduated from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 1976, he joined his brother, Larry, also a UT grad, to open a deli in Memphis like the ones they frequented in college, which used steamers to heat sandwiches without leaving them dried out. In 1977, Larry opened the second Front Street Deli at 3301 Winchester Road, where he has remained.

"We introduced steamers to Memphis. It's the key ingredient," he said.

For 22 years, he had two full-time employees, but one retired and the other moved, he said. Since then he has been facing the same challenges of any modern businessperson - multi-tasking.

Within five minutes, Busby might clean the counters, chat with two customers, serve a sandwich, punch a price in the aging register buttons and then field a call from a Pepsi distributor asking if he needs more soda this week.

Since the mid-1970s, Busby has seen Downtown change dramatically by turning into a nighttime destination every night of the week, he said. The deli used to remain open nights and weekends to capitalize on the crowds, but today he only works 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., cooking meat and serving breakfast in the morning and leaving when the lunchtime rush diminishes.

The 'real thing'

Good food and loyal customers provide the basis for Busby's business, but it didn't hurt to get a little help from a major motion picture starring Tom Cruise, either.

A two-minute scene of the Sydney Pollack-directed, 1993 drama "The Firm," when Holly Hunter breaks the truth to Cruise that he is really working for criminals, was filmed right in Busby's front window.

"I had to close up and they took over for a day," he said. "It was a big lift. Still is. People still want to see where Tom Cruise was."

Then he gets up from his stool again as a man and a woman, obviously tourists, enter. Busby takes their orders and begins his one-man show again, reaching for the ingredients like he could do it blindfolded.

"That looks like real salami," the man says.

"Only the real thing," Busby responds.

MORTGAGES 0 79 1,199
BUILDING PERMITS 146 146 2,571