WAVERLY – Late on the afternoon of April 30, after Colby Clark affixed his signature to many pieces of paper, he took over the business, the property and the goodwill of the Waverly Deli. His first day in charge was May 1, a Tuesday, and business was strong.
“Once Tuesday hit, it was almost like it went from winter to summer, and in the food service industry, the warm weather brings the people out,” Clark said on a recent Saturday morning. He chatted in the kitchen between orders for breakfast sandwiches.
“God’s looking down on me and Mari’s looking down on me,” he added.
Mari Byron, the former owner of the deli, died in February 2017 after an illness.
An employee of the deli for nearly five years before he bought the place, Clark had told the Byron family he was interested in the business should they ever decide to sell. About a year after Mari Byron’s passing, they asked if his offer was still valid.
The Byrons had owned the deli for nearly 20 years, and other commercial enterprises had operated inside 705 Clinton St. during the preceding decades.
“It’s important for me to carry on that legacy,” Clark said. “We’re going to do well. It’s about the customers. It’s about the community.”
Clark was Byron’s tenant before he became her employee. He was renting an apartment above the deli and working odd jobs around the area. He had earned a management and marketing degree from Penn State and possessed an interest in food preparation. After learning this, Byron asked Clark to come to work in the deli. That was August 2013.
“She said it was a perfect situation, because I could walk downstairs and not have to drive,” Clark said. “If not for that, I don’t know if I’d be standing here right now. It’s funny how things happen.”
Byron hired Clark as a cook, but then began teaching him how to manage the business. There was plenty to learn, and many of the topics were never addressed while Clark was in college.
“She showed me recipes and cooking and ordering,” Clark said. “But she also showed me how to treat the customers, and how to be engaged in the community.” By the time of the ownership change, Clark was serving as one of the deli’s managers.
One of the largest fixtures in the store is the refrigerated case that faces the front door. Kept inside the case are deli loaves and salad dishes which are central to the business. Coffee, salty snacks, newspapers, milk and assorted other grocery items are sold by the Waverly Deli, but the sandwich is the flagship product.
“My firm belief is that freshness is the key to everything,” Clark said. Meats are sliced daily and fresh breads are received every morning – and these are the only items Clark buys from outside vendors. All other products are made in the store, including tuna salad, egg salad, potato salad, macaroni salad, spicy chicken salad and London broil.
“I’m the working boss,” Clark said, describing his duties. During the course of each day, he is back and forth between the kitchen, the counter, the seating area and the store room.
Two long-time deli employees from the Byron ownership years continue to work in the eatery and Clark’s girlfriend Gayle Sensi works there part-time. A sign on the front door recently advertised the deli was looking for additional help.
Clark, 30, has various plans and ideas for the Waverly Deli. He wants to add seating as a way to entice more customers to dine in. He will open on Sundays, so the deli is in operation every day. The weekday closing time, now 3 p.m., will soon be pushed to 6 p.m. and more prepared meals will be offered in the store’s wall coolers.
“I have the space for grab-and-go foods,” Clark said. “I want to hit that dinner market.”
Telephone orders are accepted, but Clark is investigating methods for allowing customers to submit their orders online. E-commerce technology, he feels, has a role even for small businesses.
Even with such tweaks, Clark will keep many of the deli’s attributes unchanged. Waverly is a small place, and deli customers routinely have conversations with each other, with the staff and with the proprietor.
“It’s nice to see people collaborate and they’re not on their phones and they’re actually talking to each other,” Clark said.
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