The Potomac Village Deli, a local institution, will close its doors later this month. The deli will continue its catering business out of a facility in the Kentlands, but will no longer operate as a restaurant.
“I’m going to miss a lot of it here. I’ve developed relationships since 1978. I’ve done some baby namings that I’m now doing their baby namings,” said Sam Lerner, who started the deli 28 years ago and has owned and operated it since then except for five years from 1997-2002.
In 2002, Lerner, 53, and Adam Greenberg, 36 — who owns the Potomac Pizza and Cone Zone chains — became co-owners. Greenberg was a child when his mother started shopping and dining at Lerner’s deli.
“I love coming in here [as a customer] on the weekends with my family and seeing friends,” Greenberg said. “It’s definitely going to be sad. I know a lot of people rely on this place for a nice weekend brunch. But a place doesn’t survive off of Saturday and Sunday brunch alone.”
As recently as three years ago, the deli earned 60 percent of its revenue from dining and 40 percent from catering. Those numbers have since flip-flopped.
“The catering business is getting so out of hand that we’ve outgrown this place. Since Jan. 1, we’ve closed the restaurant at 4 o’clock just so we can get the catering done.” Lerner said. “That means the restaurant does not make money and probably loses money.”
Retail leasing in Potomac Village costs more than $70 per square foot. The deli’s monthly rent is close to $22,000, and electricity and natural gas add several thousand more per month in overhead.
Moving the dominant catering business to the Kentlands, where Greenberg rents a large, modern facility for significantly less per square foot, just makes sense, both men said.
When Lerner first opened in Potomac, his rent was around $12 per square foot, he recalled.
Greenberg will reorganize his Kentlands stores, closing the Cone Zone location there, making his current party room into the main dining room, and adding kitchen space.
Most if not all of the current Potomac Village Deli employees will be offered jobs elsewhere within the company, he said — either at the Kentlands Potomac Deli catering facility, next door at Potomac Pizza or at a new Potomac Pizza location set to open in Chevy Chase. The new restaurant, next to Clyde's on Wisconsin Avenue, will be the fourth Potomac Pizza location.
Despite the changes, Lerner and Greenberg said that the Potomac Village Deli will remain a Potomac business.
It will retain its name and telephone number, and Greenberg will continue to work out of his Potomac office. Potomac Pizza next door to the Deli will remain open.
“We still consider our roots in Potomac,” Lerner said. “As far as we’re concerned we’re still in Potomac.”
Still, Lerner admitted that he didn’t have good advice for Potomac residents looking for bagels and nova on Sunday mornings.
“That’s a good question. And that’s one of the things I really feel bad about,” he said. “It’s really changing big-time in the deli business.”
Lerner said he is part of perhaps the last generation that produced “professional deli people.” Traditional deli counters and delicacies like hand-sliced lox are going the way of rotary phones.
At the same time, the economics of the restaurant business — higher rent, utility, fuel and labor costs — are squeezing out all but the most stalwart eateries. In January, Manhattan’s famed Second Avenue Deli closed after 70 years of business due to a $9,000 spike in monthly rent.
One thing that won’t change is the deli’s community involvement efforts. Greenberg, Lerner, and B.G. Raymond, co-owner of Potomac Pizza's Village location, are well known for donating sandwiches, pizza, drinks and dessert trays to school events like after-prom parties and to charity events. The restaurants also hold fundraisers for nonprofits and youth sports teams where it donates a share of a day’s proceeds to the organization.
“The people here have been very gracious to us and taken good care of us over the years,” Greenberg said. “And we still plan to be around for the community.”
When the new Potomac Pizza restaurant opens in Chevy Chase it will donate 100 percent of its sales during the first five days of business to charity, with a different organization designated each day.
“Every dollar that walks through the door will go to a different charity each day,” Greenberg said. “You spend a dollar, a dollar goes to a charity that day.”
Sam Lerner starts deli in Olney
May 6, 1978
Lerner opens Potomac Village Deli, near the current location of Giant Food. His rent was $12 per square foot. Jimmy Carter is president.
Greenberg opens his first Cone Zone ice-cream store in Bethesda. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton gets 25 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire presidential primary, on his way to a November win.
Greenberg buys Cone Zone in Potomac Village
June 1, 1995
Greenberg buys Potomac Pizza
Greenberg sells Cone Zone in Bethesda
Greenberg sells Cone Zone in Potomac
June 3, 1997
Lerner sells the Potomac Village Deli to Rick and Dennis Cohen
Jan. 22, 2002
Greenberg receives a call from deli owners Rick and Dennis Cohen, saying they want to sell the business
Jan. 23, 2002
Greenberg calls Lerner, saying he wouldn't buy the Deli without him ("I was three days away from another deli," said Lerner.)
Feb. 1, 2002
Greenberg and Lerner take over as co-owners of the deli
Hurricane Isabel forces the end of Lerner’s “Cal Ripken streak,” when the deli loses power and is legally required to close. Prior to Isabel, the deli had been open every day since its inception.
Lerner and Greenberg agree jointly to close the Potomac Village Deli’s retail dining, while moving its catering operation — now 60 percent of overall business—to the Kentlands facility where Potomac Pizza prepares its catering. The Potomac retail space now costs more than $70 per square foot.
May 1, 2006
The deli’s retail space must be vacated. Lerner estimated that the deli’s last day of business will be at least one week earlier, due to the heavy equipment that must be moved out.