Terre Gorham 0000-00-00 00:00:00
It’s a one-man show at the corner of Front and union, where history stands still as customers step through. Thirty-five years ago, a kid fresh out of college was wondering what to do with the history degree in his hand. So Lee Busby came home to Memphis from Knoxville to spend another summer working the river as a deckhand. But his older brother, Larry, who was running a deli on Winchester and was good friends with John Vergos of Rendezvous restaurant fame, had other ideas for Lee, and it involved a small space inside an 1853 building that John owned on the southwest corner of Front and Union. Why not? Lee needed a job. A long cooler splits Front Street Deli lengthwise, dead-ending into the cash register counter, behind which Lee sits, swapping stories and tall tales until it’s time to prepare an order. But he doesn’t let a little livelihood matter like fixing a plate lunch interrupt his conversation with the customer, and he talks while he prepares the combination plates, salads, side orders, and daily plate specials — as well as the signature “dish” that put him, his brother, and Front Street Deli on the map 35 years ago. “Hot sandwiches,” says Lee. “We had kosher delis here, but the hot-sandwich concept that we fell in love with as students in Knoxville didn’t exist in Memphis. The process involved steaming sandwiches in a special steaming machine called a Fresh-O-Matic, made in Elkhart, Indiana, so sandwiches were served hot. We didn’t have microwaves back then, remember, so deli sandwiches were pretty much served cold or on toasted bread. By steaming the sandwiches, the meat got hot, the cheese melted — it brought everything together. We copied that concept from Sam & Andy’s in Knoxville and introduced it to Memphis And that concept launched the deli to success. So, too, did Downtown’s makeup at that time. Cotton was king, and Front Street Deli sat across from the Cotton Exchange in the heart of Cotton Row, A vibrant area teeming with business and commerce — and hungry cotton brokers and industry men who wanted something fast, hot, and affordable. No one lived Downtown; they just worked there. Front Street Deli’s friendly lunchtime competitors were few and far between, which also aided its success: Bon-Ton, The Little Tea Shop, and a Coney Island hot dog place on Monroe; the Arcade Restaurant on what was then called Calhoun; Cotton Row Cafe across the street; and Krystal at Third and Union where Huey’s is now. As the area morphed from cotton to condos, time stood still inside the deli. The hot sandwiches listed on the left side of his paper menu have remained unchanged, although Lee did rename one the Cruiser — turkey, smoked cheese on French bread with lettuce, tomato and 1000 Island dressing — in tribute to Tom Cruise shooting a movie scene in the deli for The Firm in 1993. Breakfast then was the same as breakfast today, right down to the self-serve coffee. Lee still bakes the cookies, mixes milkshakes (“verrry creammmy!!!”), and prepares the deviled eggs, potato salad, pimento cheese, tuna and chicken salad, and coleslaw. The right side of the menu lists the recent additions — within the past 25 years or so: daily plate lunch specials, combination plates and salads, and side orders Still, Lee prefers to keep things simple.Customers come and go with the ease of family, which they are to Lee. He not only knows most of them by name, but also what They’re apt to order. He pops the top off an Orangina — the national drink of France — splits the bottle into two glasses, and settles back behind the register. The Hall of Fame didn’t start as such, but rather as a hobby. Lee picked up — or was given — things he found meaningful or just plain ol’ liked from all over the place.But hobbies like this, by nature, can’t stay small, and the brick walls that enclose the 300-square-foot career of Lee’s comfortably overflow with mementoes, gifts, and collectibles. Lee says his hobby is on hold because he ran out of room, but it sounds more like just wishful thinking on his part. You don’t sling sandwiches for 35 years without collecting a few “memorables” along the way. In addition to the Tom Cruise encounter — commemorated by a large brass plaque outside the front door — Lee’s favorite musician dropped in one St. Patrick’s Day morning in 1987 on his way to the airport. “A black limousine pulled up, and out stepped Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant,” he recalls. “He asked for a salt meat on toast with gravy. I said I had ham and cheese on rye with coleslaw.He said, ‘Book it, Danno.’” “We’ve had our ups and downs like any other business, but for the most time it’s been very positive and fulfilling,” says Lee, finishing up the Orangina. “Sometimes people ask me when I’m going to retire, but why would I do that when I’m having so much fun? I wouldn’t want to do anything else, quite honestly.” Front Street Deli, 77 S. Front, 522-8943.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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