By Bryson Keltner
Nestled on winding Highway 68 between Edmonton and Sulphur Well, there is a landmark. It does not bear a monument, nor does it have historical significance. It is a small, white building dividing the hills of cow pastures and hay fields in Metcalfe County, Kentucky. It is 10 miles from anywhere else with a cash register and it stands next door to a recycling center that some call a junk yard. Its beacon is a letter-slider marquee, bought from a Dairy Queen that went out of business in a neighboring town.
Through the years it has sold everything from diesel fuel to live bait. It has gone through six owners and several different names, but to locals it is always known as “The Deli.”
Now officially named “Ma’s Deli,” it houses a restaurant known mostly for its ground-beef burgers and fried catfish, but it also has a few goods for sale and shares a space with a supply store that has a wide selection of tractor parts. Its walls are decked in University of Kentucky basketball memorabilia and pictures from Metcalfe County’s past. A large chalkboard that advertises specials covers the back door.
The Deli is virtually the same each day. The same conversations served over the same coffee. It is a slow meeting place, but for the old men who gather there every day, it is life itself.
“You walk in and one corner’s smokin’, one corner’s cussin’, one corner’s religious and the other corner is just free entertainment,” Diane White, the co-owner says.
While The Deli’s regulars come in sporadically throughout the day, one group of men gather there each morning and do the same things. They grab a cup of coffee in a white or red mug, sometimes order breakfast, and catch up on all the latest gossip, which usually doesn’t consist of much.
They ramble to the sounds of forks hitting plates, news station anchors speaking from the mounted television by the non-smoking section, the DING of the door when it opens, and the occasional cough from cigarette smoke. Almost everyone there lights at least one cigarette with each visit. Their topics shift every time they flick the ash off their Marlboros on the ashtray.
“Who’s drivin’ the white dually next to the road? You left your lights on.”
“You got your bracket filled out?”
“No. Not yet. We been gone the last few days. Been to Tennessee. You know it started snowin’ to beat Texas on us on the way home?” one man says, referring to a brief burst of flurries.
“Indiana got beat in NIT. First game.”
“Well, praise the Lord.”
“Don’t leave North Carolina out. They liable to win it.”
“You can’t tell. It’s a toss-up.”
“Why do those two that just left always pack pistols?”
“Everybody said when their momma died one of ‘em would shoot the other. They’d never do that though.”
“Why, no. How many people they shot? Notta one.” They all laugh.
“You need more sweet tea, hun?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
“Y’all know that man we see sometimes at suppertime? I heard he got a divorce and cut his wife in two.”
“No. No. No. They spilt the house in two.”
“Even I knew that and I ain’t been around here long.”
“You know, you may be a ship-in, but you been comin’ here just as often as us.”
“Yeah, my neck is startin’ to get just as red as yours, too.”
Onward they go.
Danny Froggett, 71, was born and raised in Metcalfe County. After moving to a different house for 40 years, he returned to his childhood home.
“I sleep in the room I was born in,” he says. “Not in the same bed though.”
Danny is one of those men. He comes to The Deli almost every morning. He congregates with the others as he orders two eggs over medium and half an order of biscuit and gravy–about a $4 charge.
“I get used to goin’ to a place, and then I don’t want to change. I used to go to The Pits in town, but them attorneys in there are so loud you can’t hear yourself think.”
He says he made The Deli his routine a few years ago because it gives him something to do. He started spending extra time there after he retired from being a school bus driver earlier this year.
“I’ve had a helluva time. But I got to have something to keep me busy. So, I come out here to visit and get the news from people. Oh I get next week’s news here. It may not be right, but I can get it.”
He stares at his biscuit and gravy with eyes just above the small freckles on his cheeks. He takes a shaker of cayenne pepper and sprinkles red over his plate.
“I been trying to cut down my blood pressure. Them Amish doctors will tell you that cayenne pepper is better for you than black pepper.”
He says it sometimes gets old doing the same thing every day because there is nothing actually new that happens.
“Every now and then there’s somethin’ different when somebody dies,” he says. “That’s about it. People say what a good fellow he was. Never said a good word about him while he was a livin’.”
The Deli has been popular since its early days. Rondell Shirley, the current sheriff of Metcalfe County, built it in 1997, shortly before he was elected for the first time.
He sits in The Deli in a full tan uniform and sips coffee as he recalls opening it. He says he had wanted to open some form of a store for years and tried to purchase a small plot of land near his home, which was on a much more secluded road. However, he owned the land where The Deli stands and used it to raise tobacco.
On a hot summer day, he was cutting tobacco there. With his store in mind, he started noticing a large amount of cars passing the field on Highway 68. He immediately noticed his small field was the perfect location for his store.
Shirley says The Deli was such an immediate success, that it made about $1,000 over the expenses it cost to build it within the first month of business.
“I reckon it’s been uphill since because I reckon I ain’t never heard of nobody having any problem making money here,” he says about the increase in profit.
The Sheriff’s family did not particularly enjoy working at the store, saying its early hours and upkeep were tiring. Shirley also soon became sheriff, so he only ran The Deli for about two months before he leased it to his cousin. However, he is proud that he contributed a meeting place to his county.
“It’s kind of become a landmark for the Mudslash community,” he says, referring to the small Mudslash school that stood nearby decades before. “It’s created a lot of jobs for people. You didn’t see nothin’ out in this community at that time. It was something that the people just took to.”
Two decades and five owners later, The Deli is still booming. Diane White sits at a table near the drink coolers, her glasses on the tip of her nose and a cigarette in one hand that she waves when she speaks.
“Nowadays, people don’t seem to have time to visit like they used to with their family or friends,” she says. The Deli provides a solution for that.
“We have a lot of people that come here who are retired or don’t have people close to them. They come and socialize and they kind of feel like family… If regulars don’t show up, the employees will sometimes call and check on them. Everybody is concerned about everybody. It’s just a small community and everyone cares. You don’t find that in a lot places anymore.”
She spends part of her days doing taxes at H&R Block, but she always works a while at The Deli. She and her husband, Greg, have made some changes since they bought it four years ago. They built on a new “non-smoking” dining room section because a few customers didn’t want to sit in cigarette smoke.
“You know the smoke still goes in there,” she says as she laughs. “It satisfies the mind though.”
Diane says that despite the daily routine for many, there have been several events in The Deli that have been everything but routine. She laughs again with a smokers’ cough as she describes someone throwing a cigarette in the bathroom trashcan and almost setting the entire building on fire. She tells about one of the UK basketball players coming in once and how he signed the bottom of one of the chairs that still sits in the establishment. She tells about the various visitors that come through. But her favorite story is the drive-through story. The Deli does not have a drive-through.
During dinner one night, a Mr. Reece, an older regular, came barreling through the kitchen with his car. He broke the sink and water lines and almost injured an employee as she was washing dishes.
Mr. Reece left his car running, entered the building, and sat down at his usual spot. Diane approached him and said, “Mr. Reece, are you all right?”
He looked up at her and said, “Yeah.”
“You know you hit the building out here?”
“Yeah. I hit the gas instead of the break. I’ll have a salad with ranch dressing.’”
Cecil Crews, 74, retired from welding years ago. He sits in the Deli every morning. He only drinks coffee and ends most sentences with “Yeah.”
“It’s just a place to loaf, yeah,” he says, meaning he kills time there. “Doesn’t get old. Nah, shucks, I enjoy it. Yeah.”
“I don’t do too much,” he says.
Joe McDonnel speaks from a table over and says, “Yeah, and he doesn’t even do that until he’s had two cups of coffee.”
“You, hush up,” Cecil says.
Cecil doesn’t say a lot, but according to Danny, he plays banjo, he is well-traveled, and he has been in several bar fights.
“I don’t know how true all that is though,” Danny says. “I heard it from The Deli.”
Samantha Wilson, 41, has lived in Metcalfe County her whole life. She has worked at The Deli for six years–longer than Diane and Greg have owned it.
She almost always works the early morning shift, so she is quite familiar with the early gentlemen.
“They’re usually really good people,” she says while taking a break from wiping down tables. “They’re patient. I know them. Like Philip: one over easy with a half order of biscuit and gravy. Randy is a sausage and egg biscuit.”
Wilson says while her favorite part of working there is the people, her least favorite part is somehow the people, too.
“You’ve got your people who are really good, really patient, and really nice. Then, you’ve got your people that aren’t that good, aren’t that patient, and aren’t nice at all,” she says. “You’ve got smile and go on.”
She brushes off some crumbs on her blue t-shirt and speaks about the reputation of the place.
“You can look it up on Google and you can read about it in the papers, but no matter where you look, it’s The Deli. That’s the number too. 432-DELI.”
Metcalfe native Greg White, Diane’s husband and co-owner of The Deli, retired from working for The City of Edmonton. He wanted something to do and told Diane to attend an auction four years ago for what was then “Bryant’s Snack and Shack.” He wasn’t there because he was attending the Kentucky Derby, where he had just placed a $25 bet on a horse that was not “I’ll Have Another,” the winner. Diane called him and said she had just spent quite a bit of money and told him to not bet on anymore horses for a while.
He sits on a Tisco Parts bar stool in the tractor portion of the building, which Greg and Diane established soon after they bought it.
He smiles and says, “If it weren’t for the people, Diane and I would get out of the business. For example, we have a round table where people sit in the mornings. I’m not going to call them liars, but that’s the story table. The older gentlemen get a kick out of that.”
A customer comes in for a few bolts. He makes small talk with her and asks her how her family is doing. He then returns to his seat and tells why he thinks The Deli is important.
“Most of the people in this area feel at home when they come in here. They’re raised on fried potatoes, pinto beans and that kind of food. They grew up sitting around drinking coffee at each other’s’ houses. Nobody’s perfect here. We try to make them feel welcome. I thank the good Lord for allowing us to be part of their lives.”
He looks out the window at a gravel parking lot with a few cars, almost immune to the smell of cigarette smoke, fresh coffee, cheeseburger grease and tractor fluid. The smell of a symbol of rural America. The smell of The Deli.