My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder

My Korean Deli is the story of an endearing editor working at a small literary magazine, married to a Korean woman, who in a last ditch effort to earn enough money to move out of the basement of his wife’s parents buys a deli in Brooklyn.

Ben Ryder, the author and narrator, takes us on a journey with a literary editor, advantaged by and sheltered by his WASP-y upbringing, into the gritty world of small business in New York City:

“I focus on the drive into midtown—the glowering skyscrapers, the silhouettes of bankers and lawyers behind tinted windows a few stories above the traffic … and at street level my future comrades among the peonage: the restaurant deliverymen, the tarot readers, the no-gun security guards and the DVD bootleggers.”

I can relate to the desire to leave the stilted world of white collar workers to join the battle of business on the street level.

More importantly, I can relate to the desire to find the kind of work that is essential to being motivated and “loving” what you do. As my one of my bosses says, it is the kind of work that offers 3 things: a sense of autonomy, a personal stake in the success of the business and a direct correlation between the amount of effort and rewards.

As Ben quickly finds out, the deli business is not as simple as it seems and that autonomy, a personal stake, and correlation between effort and reward can also mean a sense of isolation, stress, and a lot of work.

He and his family make many mistakes when they first start due to the intricacies of the any business that only an insider could appreciate. He resents the loiterers, the rickety lotto machine, the incessant complaints of the customers, the drunkards, the monotony of being a cashier, but he learns that each of these things come part and parcel with ability to make sales. The loiterers bring repeat business; the lotto machines make horrible margins and aggravate the cashier, but bring in the lotto addicts; the drunkards are a big part of repeat business in one of its highest margin items; competent cashiers that can be trusted to treat the deli like their own are nearly impossible to come by unless the cashier has ownership in the deli.

Overall the story is entertaining and brings the reader along with Ben in his quest for cash, competence, and self-worth.

There are many anecdotes to look forward to – a few off the top of my head:

  • The importance of coffee to the commuters and how easy it is to lose them with a crappy brew or a price hike
  • A convict just released from prison looking for “Lucy” when Ben is manning the register. A “loosie” is a single cigarette, loose from the pack, that delis sell illegally, but Ben doesn’t know that.
  • The constant fear that deli owners have of the tickets and fines that NYC authorities can seemingly levy on a whim. For example, the ticket for selling a “loosie” is $5,000 in NYC, when the incremental profit on a loosie is less than 33 cents (loosies sell for $1, while a pack of 20 cigarettes sells for about $13, not to mention the benefit of selling 20 at once instead of 1).
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