The co-owner of W.D. Deli is an awfully nice, awfully chatty fellow
It’s mid-morning at W.D. Deli, and sunlight is streaming in the large front windows of the restaurant, creating a warm pool of light around the table where I sit, unsuccessfully trying to harness a conversation with Wayne Beers: the green thumbs we didn’t inherit from our Italian grandfathers, the draw of the big city, the joy of a walking neighborhood, raising chickens, and on and on.
He answers my questions in anecdotes and then flings them back at me; he’s naturally curious and, perhaps, too polite to rattle on one-sidedly, and though he’s playful about it and a compelling conversationalist, I must wrangle control: Wayne, the story is about you.
|W.D. Deli owners Michael Bobo (left) and Wayne Beers,. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)|
Despite our easy banter, I don’t know Beers. Like many people, though, I’m on familiar terms with the soups, salads, and sandwiches of W.D. Deli on Broadway, the restaurant he co-owns with his longtime partner Michael Bobo. The deli has 10 employees, but if you visit during the lunch rush you’ll often find Beers at the cash register while Bobo pops in and out of the kitchen.
Beers never wanted to be a chef but he always knew he’d be a restaurateur. The plan was to become a dentist, make scads of money, and open a restaurant. “I was in dental school for about a year-and-a-half and, oh, I just hated it,” he laughs. “So I dropped out and, of course, my parents were not happy with me.”
Beers briefly worked as a waiter for Cappy Lawton before diving into the first W.D. Deli, on McCullough near the Olmos roundabout. Two years later, he opened the Maggiore Bakery, named for his Italian grandfather, who shared his pasta-sauce recipe with Beers’ mother but was often heard to say, “She’s not making it right!” In 2001, when the landlord tripled the rent on the deli and bakery, Beers and Bobo decided to buy a space. “We found this building in great disrepair,” Beers says of the 1920s-era house on lower Broadway W.D. Deli occupies. “It had no electricity, water, or air conditioning — it was really just a shell.”
In light of the enormous renovation ahead of them, Bobo, who had been working as a special-education and English teacher, decided to join Beers in running the deli. “It was an adjustment because I’d had the deli for 12 years,” says Beers. “It wasn’t bad, it was just weird. We’d been together for 16 years, but we hadn’t worked together. It’s been great, though.”
Over time, the couple has discovered that between running the deli and the catering business they spend much of the day apart. Each has taken on aspects of the business that suit his personality, and once they open the restaurant for their employees and grab a quick breakfast (“Every morning we eat at Taco Taco,” says Beers. “Every single day. It’s really actually sad.”), they go their own ways.
“It’s not written or even spoken, we just fell into it,” says Beers. “He does a lot of the catering, some shopping, and, well, I do most everything — no really, I do the bills, he writes the checks ... ”
The result is a quirky deli that not only feels like a sunny spot to relax and take in a meal, but also runs so efficiently that, except for the line of people winding through their tables, customers are unlikely to notice the lunch rush.
The deli gets a lot of its funky atmosphere from the curiously mammoth staircase in the center of its dining room. The elegant curve of its balustrade and chunky proportions are dramatic, but perhaps too imposing for such a small house. The original owner was an entrepreneur, who, according to his daughter, invented a car that was going to be manufactured in San Antonio. “We asked her why they made the staircase so huge,” says Beers. “She said, ‘Oh my dad wanted to be so grand,’ he wanted for people who walked in to see the staircase and think there was like all this crap upstairs.” Sadly, the stock market crashed, the car didn’t sell, and the family was forced to give up the house.
W D Deli
Other people have dropped by to talk about the building, too. One man remembered it as a restaurant with a men-only poker game upstairs; it was a rite of passage when, as a 14-year-old boy, he was allowed to sit against the wall and watch the games, guns and stacks of money at every table. In the ‘70s, the house was one of few gay bars in San Antonio. The proprietors would blink the lights when the Fort Sam military police came by, warning dancing couples to change partners.
Today, the staircase provides a stage for W.D. Deli’s Drag Brunch, a twice-yearly event for which Beers and Bobo hire drag queens to perform. “When we first started, it used to be 90 percent gay, now its 50-50,” says Beers, who attributes the change to word-of-mouth rather than philosophy. “Most of the straight people who come are women and they love it. People bring their kids, too. I don’t think they know if the performers are guys or girls, but it’s wild and they love it — they’re just great performers.”
Although he was raised in the big city — New York and New Jersey — Beers likes how San Antonio can feel like a very small town, and how that community is reflected in the deli. “I love when people come in and they know everybody, it feels so good.” says Beers. “We’ve made a lot of good friends and — we talk a lot about this — it’s so cool to see families that come in and their kids have grown up here.”
Beers’ family eventually forgave him for not becoming a dentist, but his father passed away before the deli opened. On the day he died, he called to give Beers his Caesar Salad recipe, which is used in the deli today. Beers’ mother later found the recipe, written in his father’s hand, and had it framed for him.
With all the time we spend thinking about, preparing, and eating meals — even those of us who don’t own delis — it’s not surprising that food is the twine of so many memories. “My grandfather grew tomatoes every year,” says Beers, “and he would bring them to our house; sometimes they grew, sometimes they didn’t.”
And we are cantering off course again: growing tomatoes upside down, the hard business of refinishing hardwood floors ... until, I grab the reins for one last question: Spending so much time here, do you still eat the food? “This is so horrible: I’ll take a cookie and go back in the kitchen and put icing on it,” Beers laughs. “Isn’t that the worst? It’s so good though because we make the best cream-cheese icing and with the cookies, oh my God, they’re so good.” •
By Susan Pagani