23 April 2021, 08:13 AM
  • Tracey Tannenbaum, former deli owner and chef, describes the mixed emotions brought about by selling her shop and giving up creative control
Confessions of a (former) deli owner, part 1

“Leek and potato soup.”

The words, innocently written on chalk board, glinted in the springtime sunshine. But to me, I only saw red.

A bit dramatic, you might say, but you might understand if I start at the beginning. Last week my husband and I sold our business, a deli created in a former run-down fruit and vegetable shop. Initially, it was a space that required us to strip paint off Victorian tiles, lift six layers of lino and even more layers of leopard print wallpaper off the ceiling (not kidding). We needed a carpenter and found one in our painter, who quietly told us he was a joiner, too. In the evening after his day job, he helped us to turn wooden panelling from an old bank into bespoke counter-tops and displays.

We argued about how much space people needed for their bags and cartons of eggs at the till. We painted until midnight – swinging a lamp to see if we had missed any spots on the vast corniced ceiling. We suffered cuts from a saw, blisters from the crowbars used to pry off the glue on the floor and a black and blue thumb from a stray hammer’s strike.

At the core, we spent three and a half years developing a brand that was quirky, creatively driven and joyous. And now the new owners have taken the keys, and, well, just OPENED.

Yes, you are saying, you SOLD the business. That’s what you’ve sold – not only the toil, the menus and the refrigerators – but the sweat, tears and emotion.

Surprisingly, it has been harder to let go than expected. Once the relief of the sale had finally gone through (after four months and three sets of lawyers to satisfy), there was initial elation. All that space in our heads devoted to menu planning, staffing, deliveries, and finance was freed up to think of something else. A holiday! Or not, given Covid was still limiting enjoyment abroad.

My husband, who has spent the mornings writing a novel, usually made it to the deli in time for the lunch rush. Now, he’s at a bit of a loss to fill the time. To be honest, he’s driving me slightly crazy. As for me, I’m writing a book about the business side of starting and running a deli/café. It is odd now writing the end of our personal deli story when I’m contemplating Chapter One…

I think the big thing I’ve learned is that giving up creative control requires work, and perhaps a bit of gritting one’s teeth. The sign mentioning ‘leek and potato’ soup represented, to me, brand disintegration. Or a ‘brand divorce’ if you will from our initial concept of being deliciously different. The banality of that offering was why we opened the deli in the first place. But what to do?

I took a punt. I picked up the phone and called the new owner, a man I respect. I explained that I wanted him to succeed, and a boring soup (although probably tasty) wouldn’t attract the customer base long-term. Why pay for a strongly branded business and make it, well, dull? I know I will have to let go, to perhaps grieve for something that is no longer ours. But in the meantime, after that call, the new soup will be leek and potato with wild garlic croutons. And I can live with that.

Read part two here.