Mary Mervis Delicatessen: “We’re Still Here”

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Mary-Mervis-2-copyThe food you can get from Mary Mervis is a treat, to which the long lines in front of their counter are a constant testament. Mary Mervis Delicatessen is a real Jewish deli, creating old-school delicacies of meat, salt, and spices as if the new millennium never happened. I mean that as a compliment. Mary Mervis is nothing if not consistent. The flavors your grandparents might have savored here 50 years ago are exactly the same ones you can enjoy yourself today. With only 3 owners in 103 years, it’s easy to see how hard work and passion has managed to preserve the greatness that has made Mary Mervis famous throughout Baltimore and beyond. Elliot, tertiary owner in that line of three, has a lot more to say on the matter.

“103 years old, our business. We’re here to stay. WWI, WWII, Depression, Korean War, Vietnam, and everything else. We’re still here. We’re survivors. We’ve got a line here all day. But this is nothing. In the old days…”

Mary-Mervis-11-copy“The old days” refers to 2002, when Elliot bought Mary Mervis from the previous owner of 40 years, and earlier still, when he was a customer himself. That was before the economy tanked; before a sudden customer drop-off forced the loss of half of his staff; before Lexington Market hit one of the darkest times in its history; and before the recovery which it is now experiencing.

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Through all this, Elliot kept his team sharp, pushing to consistently meet the standards established in better days. And this is why the crowds started coming back. Mary Mervis serves 500-1000 customers every day. Elliot estimates that he knows 800 regulars by name, all by face. And business isn’t limited to those who can make the stroll or drive to Lexington Market. Every week, Elliot is shipping provisions all around the world, to hungry folks who know they can’t get this stuff anywhere else.

Mary-Mervis-9-copyWhat kind of food are we talking about? Shrimp salad, corned beef, salami, pastrami, chipped beef, and a couple dozen other offerings that Mary Mervis makes better than you’ve likely tasted. You can wait in line and buy the meats, cheeses, and salads and be on your way. Or you can grab one of Mary Mervis’s much-craved sandwiches for a meal on the run. If you’re not ready for the crowd, you can order straight from their website.

Mary-Mervis-4-copyIn the minutes that followed my interview with Elliot, I found myself in line for corned beef and shrimp salad, hypnotized by the aroma and atmosphere of the mobbed counter. The shrimp salad was sold out, something that happens every day. And it’s not for lack of trying on the part of the Mary Mervis staff, who make 1500 pounds a week, along with 2500 pounds of corned beef. They make a lot of other items too, and it seems like there’s never enough. It’s just that good, and the demand is endless.

This is how things have been for generations. The real life Mary Mervis opened the Lexington Market institution in 1913, after her mayonaise-factory-magnate husband died when she was 22. Left with two young daughters, the deli was a means of survival. But it quickly earned a large following. A second husband helped her add smoked fish products to the menu, and their business continued to expand. The family owned the place for 50 years, before selling to an 18-year-old entrepreneur who would carry on the tradition another 40.

Mary-Mervis-3-copyElliot had been a customer for many years, making the trip out of his way to Lexington Market whenever he could. Today, as the owner, he recognizes the value and the struggle of providing a great tradition of food for so many people. And as easy as it would be to retire to simpler pursuits, he keeps it going, even enlisting one of his two daughters as partner. “We’re still here” resonates, especially considering the difficulty of this enterprise and its enormous value for thousands of loyal patrons. Mary Mervis Delicatessen is still here, and from myself and every other Lexington Market denizen, we’re happy to have it.

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