New York Style
Offering Northern fare with Southern hospitality, Melinda Stein’s Calabash Deli has been staple for lunches and quick dinners since 1997.
Melinda Stein comes from a long line of service-industry professionals and her father owned two delis, but a career as a restaurant owner in the South was not in her original plans.
Growing up in Lloyd Harbor, New York, a Suffolk County town on the Long Island Sound where on clear days she could easily see the shoreline of Stamford, Connecticut, Stein graduated from Cold Spring Harbor High School in 1990. She went on to study architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans for two years before deciding that she preferred working with teams of people rather than doing the solitary work an architect typically would do. Moving back to Long Island, she received a B.S. in product management textiles in 1996 from the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.
Moving to the Carolinas in 1996 after her New York boyfriend received a job offer in Horry County, Stein liked the area so much that she stayed.
Searching for a job that she would enjoy wasn’t producing any results, so when the delicatessen owner at 9929 Beach Drive in Calabash was retiring and selling the store, Stein jumped at the chance to buy it.
“I think that when opportunity knocks it’s up to us to take advantage of that,” Stein says. “It’s not often in life that the perfect opportunity comes along, and for me that happened when I opened the Calabash Deli in 1997.”
With her deli open 68 hours a week, Stein depends on longtime employees Jennifer Kirkley-He and Daniel Barone to help her manage the business when she’s not around. She has 20 full-time employees that are on different shifts and overlap at lunchtime, which is the busiest time, from 11 am to 2 pm.
A hands-on person, Stein assists with making sandwiches, packing to-go dinners or doing the dishes.
“I call myself the chief cook and bottle washer for a reason; I’ll do whatever it takes for all of us as a team to get the job done,” Stein says. “Adding some levity at work helps, also, so we keep the mood light and on holidays we’re known for dressing up in costumes.”
Stein’s father, Arthur Stein, Jr., opened a deli in Hicksville, New York, in 1967 and in Locust Valley in 1973.
“I remember him often dressing up as Elvis Presley to amuse his customers,” she says. “Customers liked that.”
Stein learned about the service industry from hearing about her great-great-grandfather, who opened a bar in Jamaica, New York, in the 1800s and her great-great-grandmother, who ran a confectionary store two blocks away.
“Their hard work and dedication to their customers impressed me and growing up I saw the same traits in my father when he ran his delis,” Stein says. “My relatives had a way of persevering so whenever an obstacle came along, they found a way to overcome it. As a fifth-generation service industry worker, I’d like to think that I’m a hard worker, dedicated to doing my best and able to persevere when the going gets tough. The fact is, adapting to change is important for a business to thrive and grow.”
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Stein and her staff brainstormed about what their customers might need. “We started selling to-go dinners for customers who wanted a meal that was tasty and nutritious,” Stein says. “With a protein, vegetable and starch, the dinners were handy for many customers who are older and often single. These to-go dinners also ensured hours for my employees.”
Individually wrapped and priced at less than $10 a meal, these dinners simply need to be warmed up to put a good meal is on the table. Calabash Deli still offers them every day, with offerings like meatloaf, eggplant Parmesan, lasagna and stromboli.
Twelve years ago they started selling Thanksgiving dinners. Each year people place their orders in advance for a turkey dinner with the meat plus mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans and gravy, and the day before Thanksgiving the are available for pick up. Thanksgiving 2020 was very busy at the Calabash Deli, and they sold 550 dinners.
A large part of Stein’s business is catering. Platters of sandwiches with side dishes are delivered for golf tournament parties, bridal showers, birthday parties, celebration of life events and more, and Stein credits her team of employees with making this happen. The homemade pastries, gourmet cookies and bagels, which taste like New York bagels, are a hit.
The Hungry Man and Jersey breakfast specials are a staple of the morning menu, and lunchtime sandwiches feature such catchy names as The Godfather, The Calabash Club and The All-American. New York potato salad, German potato salad, homestyle potato salad, macaroni salad and other options are available at lunchtime.
“With our homemade salads, we use recipes that have been passed down from generations in my family and many of my employees’ families,” Stein says. “They are secret recipes, and I’ll never reveal them.”
Stein focuses on employees’ needs as well as her customers’ needs.
“We used to open daily then I realized that many of the deli’s employees have children and families and being off every Sunday was important,” Stein says. “Listening to what employees want and need is key in running a happy business. So is positive motivation. I recognize people and give good feedback when employees do a great job. I reward them, too, monetarily and sometimes even with gold stars. People appreciate it when the owner is willing to go the extra mile and able to stand in the employee’s shoes.”
Giving back to the community is a priority for Stein. The Calabash Deli contributes to the summertime Calabash Concert Series and to other fundraisers.
“Residents support small businesses, and we small businesses are committed to giving back to the community,” Stein says. “It’s a win-win any way you look at it.”
The Town of Calabash has been welcoming to Stein for the past 24 years and she’s looking forward to many more.