The Deli Wars

by

12/15/2003

York and 83rd and 84th, 10028

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

K.Y. Grocery, near the corner of 83rd on the east side of York, is run by a Korean family who are friendly with the Japanese fish market that lies next door. If you are a regular, they will let you run small tabs if you’re short on cash, and they always round up or down to avoid pennies. Since it’s the only deli on that side of the street for several blocks, K.Y. gets away with higher prices. The residents of that side of York can travel there by staying under the awnings, fending off rain and snow if too lazy to gear up with wet winter wear. On many weekend mornings, I have shuffled there in slippers. It is an oasis with yummy fruit and veggies, a salad bar, the traditional dusty deli flowers, as well as exotic Asian food like eda mame and green tea ice cream.

On opposite corners across 84th are our two other neighborhood delis: Hiram (NW) and George & Sons (SW). These are more standard than K.Y., with sandwich counters, coffee, etc. They stock identical items, and until recently, were set up the exactly same, except Hiram is run by a Middle Eastern family, George & Songs an Italian family.

While K.Y. sits serenely a block south, keeping its own company, these two delis glare at each other from across narrow 84th locked in their eternal, silent feud.

When Hiram cleaned and replaced their awning a couple years ago, so did George & Sons. Last summer when George finally got an ATM (with three large ATM signs added to their windows), within a week, so had Hiram (with five signs added).

They are constantly adding or subtracting stock based on the others. I use to run into George & Son’s for cat food, but then crossed the street to Hiram for a V8. George only sold regular tomato juice until they caught on and started carrying V8 themselves.

Then Hiram expanded their line of cat food, making either store an equally fine last minute choice. Certain things they proudly differ on. George carries only Pepsi products, Hiram only Coke.

They have both expanded their veggie choices, perhaps in response to the Asian deli.

The latest raised stakes have been deliveries and menus and business cards. Just recently I noticed George starting to allow tabs for his regulars.

How do they gather their information? Do they hold monthly meetings on how to one up the other? Do they have neighborhood informers? Or is it accidental? A customer mentions something that the other provide which they do not?

I know all three keep an eye on their patrons. If I enter one deli with a bag from the other, they will view it with suspicion. If one of the stock guys is out on a corner on a smoke break and sees me entering the opposing store, he gives me a severe nod as if I’d betrayed him.

A few of my neighbors and I have snickered over the feud, but what about the rest? Are there some who are furiously loyal and won’t go to the others, or are they like I used to be: pragmatic, a deli whore who goes to the one I know has the product I want, or whichever one is closer at the time.

Choosing a side may be inevitable though, a human impulse, even when allegiance isn’t always in our best interest. Though I love the Korean deli for its Asian stocked goods, my loyalty lies with Hiram, who doubles as a door man, taking in large packages that are delivered (if you leave a note to the mailman and ask the afternoon worker nicely), or holding items that someone needs to pick up.

And recently, while I was recovering from a leg injury, one of Hiram’s stock boys walked around the store with me, solemnly carrying my groceries and offered to carry them home for me. In a city as unruly and guarded as New York can sometimes be, it felt good to be treated as a wounded veteran, a fellow soldier, a friend.

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