There seem to be fewer and fewer local neighborhood delis in Lower Manhattan these days, as small businesses often struggle to survive. But L & M Delicatessen and Catering, at 80 Seventh Ave. in Chelsea, is one place still going strong — and has grown over the last 49 years into a center of the community.
Spending any time with owner Larry Xerri in L & M will likely come with interruptions, as he seemingly knows everyone who comes into the store and greets them, chats for a few minutes and often exchanges a few inside jokes. On a recent afternoon, he was preparing a Super Bowl pool that he does with many local residents, which now goes back 20 years.
“People come here and see their neighbors,” said Xerri, “and talk about what’s going on in the neighborhood.”
Xerri is a first-generation American, his family coming here from Malta. His father and uncle started the deli in 1971, and Larry, 54, has been there for the past 30 years. He helped out in the store as early as age 13.
Larry is a true local, growing up on Hudson and Leroy Streets. He attended the Academy of St. Joseph in Greenwich Village, then Stuyvesant High School and NYU. His cousins are among those who work at the deli, along with other employees who have been there for decades.
“Everyone’s trying to do the great American success story,” Larry said. “We’re more or less a family here.” He added, “We pay our guys and charge a fair price.”
The area in Chelsea has changed a lot over the years, Larry said, becoming more affluent and family-oriented. He said the key to success is to remain a consistent presence, while also adapting to the times.
Twenty years ago, for example, they offered six types of salami, but now there are more varieties of turkey, as people become more health-conscious. Catering has become a growing part of the deli operation as it now accounts for 15 percent of total business — something that didn’t even exist two decades ago.
“You gotta roll with whatever is working and what the community is asking for,” Larry said, adding that they get about 80 percent repeat business.
Another key is not being priced out of the location, which happens to so many businesses who can suddenly face a skyrocketing rent, Larry said.
“I’ve seen everything change,” he said. “There aren’t many places left.”
But he said the landlord, Price Rahav Realty, is reasonable. “They have been very fair with us,” he said. “Fair is hard to come by these days.” He added, “We’re still here, knock on wood.”
The deli features three illustrations near the entrance by caricature artist Robert Risko, who is a regular. He drew Larry, his Uncle Mike (now retired from the deli) and employee Hugo Bustamante, who has been there 30 years.
The deli’s location was also part of Edward Hopper’s famous 1930 painting “Early Sunday Morning,” though the buildings in the painting were torn down decades ago.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson gave L & M a shout-out in The New York Times in 2018, saying it’s part of his Sunday routine.
One of the many regulars is Eileen Millan, a retired artist who has lived nearby for decades. When she stops by, they already know what she wants without her having to say it: two scrambled eggs with crispy bacon on an unseeded roll.
“They make the best breakfast sandwich,” she said. “To me it’s the best in town.”
Millan added that generations of families have been going there. “It’s like a neighborhood place,” she said. “Everyone knows your name, it’s like ‘Cheers.’”
Larry still puts in 65 hours a week at the store, he said, and used to work even more. “That’s small business,” he said. “You do things yourself.”