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March 24, 2013

Andy’s: Where everyone is ‘my friend, my dear’

A Five Points institution, Andy’s Deli has changed little since the friendly owner opened it 35 years ago

Have an Andy’s Special, my dear.

Generations of Columbia residents have devoured the roast beef, turkey, Swiss cheese and bacon bits creation for lunch and dinner, keeping Andy’s Deli in business for almost 35 years.

Andy Shlon, a 71-year-old immigrant from Beirut, Lebanon, opened the Five Points deli in August 1978. But even as the urban village has changed around it, Andy’s Deli – with its red and white striped sign outside and vintage posters and Gamecock paraphernalia inside – has remained the same.

Customers still find the personable Shlon behind the counter donning his red apron and white baseball cap at the store at 2005 Greene St. Around noon every day, Shlon greets a line of customers, takes orders and helps make sandwiches by slicing meat. Customers stop in on their lunch breaks wearing everything from medical scrubs to suits and ties to military uniforms.

And they will find the same menu Shlon opened with 35 years ago – sandwiches with a choice of veggies, meats and a side of a pickle and chips.

Shlon recently was recognized as a City of Columbia “Business Spotlight Honoree” for being a long standing business icon, who provides excellent customer service and generosity to the community.

“Andy’s Deli continues to thrive because Mr. Shlon is committed to both the City of Columbia and to making all of our families his family as well,” the city wrote in announcing the award. “At Andy’s Deli, everyone is a ‘friend’ and is always ‘welcome.’”

From Beirut to a business owner

Shlon grew up in Beirut – which was peaceful and beautiful during his childhood – with its ancient buildings and cool, dry weather. There’s no agriculture there, but tourism is big. The area serves as a trade center, Shlon said. Beaches are about half an hour from mountains.

“It’s like paradise of the Middle East,” he said.

He attended a prep school in Lebanon taught by American, Spanish and Italian teachers. To attend the school you had to either be smart or have money, he said.

“I didn’t have money,” he joked.

Shlon later moved to Kuwait and worked for Kuwait Airways as a revenue accountant. He liked the job, and it gave him the opportunity to travel in Europe.

He visited America in the 1960s, coming to South Carolina to see friends. He later moved to Columbia – fulfilling his dream of coming to America for higher education – when he began attending Palmer College, which later merged to form Midlands Technical College.

Shlon found a job at Groucho’s Deli during college. He took a break to study at a university in Fort Lauderdale, but returned to Columbia after he finished his education in business management. He worked at Groucho’s for more than a decade before he decided to leave the restaurant business altogether.

But he said he was overqualified, so he couldn’t find another job. Ultimately, he decided to go back to what he knew and open his own restaurant. In two weeks, he had transformed an old Lums restaurant into his own deli, he said.

“Business was instantaneous,” said his wife, Carol Shlon.

A place for memories

The restaurant today is a time capsule, with pictures and posters of Gamecock athletic teams lining the walls.

Shlon recognizes his customers and smiles and greets them during their lunch hour.

Everyone is special: “Hello, my dear. Hello, my friend,” he calls out to them from behind the counter.

He even has some of their favorites or special requests memorized.

Orangeburg residents Lauren and Bob Jennings recently stopped by Andy’s Deli when they were in Columbia for a doctor’s appointment.

The couple ate at the sandwich shop when Lauren Jennings was in college during the early 1990s. Lauren Jennings had an Astronaut – ham and turkey with melted Swiss Cheese – and Bob Jennings got the Andy’s Special – the same meal he used to order when he was younger.

The deli is the same as they remember it and they appreciate that it is fast, good and consistent. The friendly atmosphere also is a plus.

“Nothing’s better than hearing ‘Hello, my friend’ and ‘Hello, my dear,’” Bob Jennings said.

The consistency carries throughout Shlon’s business from customer service to the unchanged menu.

“Everybody has a memory of the place and the menu itself,” Shlon said. Customers may not remember the name of a sandwich but they can point to the same spot it was on the menu the last time they ordered it, and it hasn’t moved.

A generational business

Shlon preaches hard work. The deli owner works Monday through Saturday for 11 hours a day without a break.

The owner and his sons, Andrew and Adam, who work with him behind the counter, eat lunch after the lunch rush.

“My meal isn’t complete if I didn’t have to get up a few times,” said his youngest son, Adam.

But he doesn’t mind.

“It’s never any trouble to help somebody,” the 29-year-old said.

Adam Shlon grew up in Andy’s Deli, sitting by the cash register while his dad worked until he was a teenager and old enough to help out.

Even though Andy’s Deli is older than he is, Adam Shlon also has seen customers grow and change.

“It feels like time passes at a different rate,” Adam Shlon said.

Andy Shlon sees his business passing between generations and continuing to serve quality meals to generations of customers.

“I know I might not last another 35 years,” Andy Shlon said.

But with the popularity of his sandwiches, Andy’s Deli just might.

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