St. Louis Standards: Blues City Deli is the soul of Benton Park | Food & Drink News | St. Louis

click to enlarge Blues City Deli front entrance.

Andy Paulissen

A trip to New Orleans sparked a food-music connection for Blues City Deli founder Vince Valenza.

If you ask Vince Valenza about the origin story of Blues City Delic (2438 McNair Avenue, 314-773-8225), you would think it starts with a fateful trip to New Orleans for a work conference that inspired him to start making muffalettas at home, or even his turn as a blues musician, giving the deli its musically twisted mind. In reality, however, the deli’s roots go much deeper.

“It goes back to when I was a kid — not that I thought I’d ever open a sandwich shop, but because on Saturdays we had a tradition of sitting around the table for lunch,” explains Valenza. “It was a casual day. I was five or six and would get out of bed and help my father run errands or work outside. My mother and sisters would do things around the house, and we would all meet at the table for lunch. The Volpi genoa salami would come out, bread from Valenti’s in Jennings, olives, cheeses and the like It was just something we did every Saturday, and when I got married we tried to carry on that tradition In the back of my mind, it was just part of me.”

When you walk into Valenza’s beloved Benton Park store, Blues City Deli, you can feel the continuous line of these lunch table experiences from childhood to what he and his team have created. For the past 18 years, Valenza and his company have been dedicated to creating more than just delicious sandwiches – they give their guests the elusive feeling that comes from enjoying simple, good food prepared by people who know your name, take your order have mastered it and you know that they are really happy that you are in their life. It’s a culture that Valenza didn’t create to order, but one that has grown organically thanks to the support of the entire Blues City Deli team in what they do.

click to enlarge The crew included owner Vince Valenza (back right) and his son Vinnie Jr.  (back left) take a break before opening.

Andy Paulissen

The crew, including owner Vince Valenza (back right) and his son Vinnie Jr. (back left), pause before opening.

As humbly as Valenza declines credit for creating such an environment, there is no doubt that his personal journey in the restaurant business has influenced the welcoming atmosphere of Blues City Deli. Growing up in North County – Jennings, to be exact – Valenza was surrounded by quality family-run eateries; Ponticello’s, Angelo’s, Saullo’s and Domenico’s defined the Italian-American food scene of the area and crystallized in Valenza what a fine restaurant should be.

It also sparked a passion for the restaurant business in him, but it would take a while for him to get the jitters. Instead, he got a job at Xerox right out of high school and worked for the company until it closed its St. Louis distribution center in 1983. Valenza was offered a job at Xerox’s Texas location, but his father has just been diagnosed with colon cancer. Leaving the city wasn’t an option, so he entered the hairdressing business through a connection through some friends. It was a good performance, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was meant for something close to his heart.

“All the while, I kept thinking I wanted to get into food,” Valenza says. “I told my wife that I wanted to open some kind of Italian cafe and go back to my roots, so I spoke to [my friends] who opened Fratelli’s in Dellwood. I told them I was thinking about doing this and asked if they could sit down with me sometime and discuss the basics I should know. They said, ‘Why don’t you just come and work with us?’ I fell in love with that.”

Valenza may have only worked at Fratelli’s for a year, but it was enough time for the restaurant industry to get into his blood. Even after he left because he needed to find a more substantial income – again in the barbershop and with a playground equipment manufacturer – Valenza couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being called to open a restaurant. That suspicion turned into a full-fledged urge after a business trip to New Orleans sparked in him a food-music connection that inspired his vision for what would become Blues City Deli.

click to enlarge A muffaletta sandwich.

Andy Paulissen

The muffaletta includes Genoa salami, ham, mortadella and provolone.

Valenza spent the few years following those journeys developing recipes at home, perfecting his sandwich game, and sketching ideas for how to establish a sandwich shop around the famous Blues Highway (U.S. Highway 61 stretching from Wyoming, Minnesota, to New Orleans). Finally, he felt he was ready to launch the concept, so he made plans to open in Florissant. They fell through, as did his second plan to bring the idea to St. Charles County, so he started making plans to make a Blues City Red Hots hot dog cart in Soulard instead. He even got to the point of asking his friend, a fellow blues musician, for help with his website, but instead got a tip about a building for rent in Benton Park.

“Everyone knew I wanted to open Blues City Deli, so he said to me, ‘Vinnie, this building across the street has been empty for a long time; you should take their number and look, because it could be reasonable, ‘” Valencia recalls. “I told my wife, and she said, ‘Here we go again,’ but then I took her to look at it, and it looked so cool, she said OK.”

Valenza opened Blues City Deli in October 2004 and surrounded himself with a team he credits with expanding his original vision to make the place what it is today. From the wildly popular sandwiches to the live music shows (yet to resume after being put on hiatus during COVID-19), Valenza and his team have been giving their guests a transportation experience for nearly two decades, and he believes the restaurant thrives on its collaborative nature. . Although he started with a set sandwich menu and a certain idea of ​​how things should work, the deli has evolved over time thanks to the creativity of its employees, who take ownership of its success.

click to enlarge Blues painted on the wall of Blues City Deli.

Andy Paulissen

Blues City Deli thrives on the creativity of its employees.

“We have so many old employees who gave everything and who work hard,” says Valenza. “The older I get, the more I see what they do; they have ideas and share and brainstorm. It’s like they’re thinking about the success of the deli and ways to make the deli better. none of this would have happened. I’m so proud of them.”

When Valenza is proud of his team for their efforts to help him turn the deli into the success story it has become, he is even more excited about the culture they have created. He believes the key to their staying power has to do with putting the customer first and building relationships, even if it’s just for a minute or so of interacting with their guests. If they can keep doing that, they will remain a vital part of St. Louis’s food scene for years to come.

“This is a ‘we’ place,” Valenza says. “I always tell my team that I don’t pay their salaries; the customers are. I just write the checks. They’re the ones we have to put our hats on and take care of. If you make people feel good and “Be respectful of them you start to build something. There is a path, and we follow it by letting people know that when we make food, we put our souls into it.”

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