On April 1, 1990 our long time friends Dominic Serratore, and Frank Yang, who we had worked together with at The Famed Grisanti family, were about to open their new restaurant Ditto’s Grill on the corner of Bardstown Road and Grinstead drive. Frank had this extra space in the back that he wanted to open a delicatessen and he wanted Susan and I to bring that idea to life.
At the time I was working as the Executive Chef at Hunting Creek Country Club, and Susan was busy managing Animal Crackers Clothing store in St. Matthews. We are both classically trained Chefs. I cut my chops on the east coast, and Susan graduated from LaVarenne in Paris where she became a master at Pastries. Neither one of us had a clue about running a delicatessen, let alone going into business for ourselves.
After much thought we decided that I would keep my job and she would leave Animal Crackers to open the deli with my support. I went to the membership at Hunting Creek and told them of my plans to stay at the club but that I would be splitting my time between the deli and the club.
We spent most of that year working on ideas, menus, and key staff. We traveled to New York, Chicago, and LA to learn all we could about what a delicatessen was all about. I met one guy who summed it up it New York by saying “Son, the restaurant business is show business, and delis are the broadway of show business.” I knew that if we were to be accepted as a real deli, we would have to capture the rich traditions of the Jewish faith. Without their support we would be just another sandwich shop. At the same time we knew that the delis of old just stayed stuck in time, and were not keeping up with the new trends of healthy eating and variety that our Highlands neighborhood needed.
We opened on April fools day 1991, and began the extremely painful process of opening our own place. It was a nightmare! Thank God we had good food, because that’s all we had. We had never counted a cash drawer before. We had no financial systems in place, and so every night we just counted money, took it to the bank, and hoped it would be enough. We had no real human resource experience, and so I am sure that we drove our staff crazy, and some we drove right out the door.
About a week after we opened we got reviewed by the Courier-Journal, and the headline was “Stevens & Stevens, where Deli stands for ‘delicious.'” We picked up a copy of that review at 4:00 in the morning on the way in to town from our farm in Prospect, as I read the article to Susan we both began to cry and realize that we had the break we needed.
What took place that day, and for weeks after, was complete carnage. We ran out of food almost every day. We actually divided the lines of people in half, and said that we would have to ask this half to come back another time, that we were simply running out of food. The Courier liked our cheesecake so we sold 25 of them the first day of the review. That was supposed to last us a week! At the end of each day I practically begged the staff to stay for another beating, and promised them that things would get better.
I went back to work that day and gave my final farewell to Hunting Creek. Shortly after that we sold the farm to finance our mounting debt. We moved in to a small apartment on Tyler Park, and piled our belongings on the back porch exposed to the elements.
It is amazing to us that that was twenty-five years ago. Obviously things have stabilized a great deal, although most of the time we still run wide open and loose. We have become a part of the Highlands, and are now a Louisville Landmark. To this day I pinch myself that we are still alive. We are so grateful to the many, many wonderful people that have become our customers. You know who you are. The names of those that gave us their blessing, and gave us our credibility in the community also know who they are, and we would not have made it without you.
We never take it for granted. I love to read your comment cards. I love to see you come back after college. I love when you bring in a friend for the first time. I love to hear you say this is your favorite restaurant — these are the things that make all the endless hours worthwhile.
Mark & Susan