Order Up! An Old-School Deli Counter Is at the Heart of Burlington's Changing South End | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Order Up! An Old-School Deli Counter Is at the Heart of Burlington's Changing South End


Published February 26, 2014 at 4:00 a.m.

At lunchtime, the line at the Pine Street Deli counter isn't a line at all. On a Thursday afternoon, a dozen people cluster in no discernible pattern, eyeing menus and waiting to be called forward. The group includes twentysomethings in hoodies, a man in loafers talking on his cellphone, a worker in stained overalls and two middle-aged women in puffy coats.

On the other side of the counter, laboring between a sizzling grill and a shelf lined with cutting boards, are six people who are either members of the Alvanos family or have worked with them long enough to be considered part of the clan.

"What can we get for you?" they ask, again and again.

In the past seven years, the Greek family has lured a cross-section of customers to their bustling sandwich shop and convenience store in Burlington's South End. On this day, the diversity of the neighborhood is on full display.

Nate Butala (Philly cheesesteak) is on a break from installing flooring at a nearby hotel. Mike Spencer (grilled chicken salad) makes his ritual stop as he commutes between home and his consulting office downtown. Sharon Holcomb (hotdogs with Michigan sauce) is heading home to her husband after a shift in the Fletcher Allen medical center billing office. Dan Voisin (meatball sub, hotdogs with ketchup) grabs a hot meal for himself and his crew. They're drilling test wells at the rail yard.

"It beats Cumby's," Voisin says.

Michael Alvanos, 32, mans the grill, where provolone cheese bubbles on top of smoldering green peppers and shredded meat. A Burlington High School grad, Alvanos grew up working at the old Parkway Diner, which his parents used to own. He went to college in Nevada, returned home and went back to work for his parents when they opened the deli.

Alongside him, three twentysomething workers pile green peppers on top of yellow peppers on top of pickles and tomatoes and meat into sub rolls that somehow keep their shape under the burden. First Michael Alvanos hired one guy whose roommate also needed a job. Then another roommate got curious. Eventually, five of the pals wound up working together at Pine Street.

On the opposite end of the counter, farthest away from her son, Christine Alvanos spends much of the lunch rush urging her customers forward.

"Because of my white hair, people have a tendency to respect me more, so when I yell, 'What can I get you?' they come forward," she says. "They're more apt to respect an older woman yelling at them than one of the young guys. I can push them along."

Her husband, George — "the big kahuna," his son calls him — floats. He checks on a boiling pot of potatoes one minute, chats with a customer another. He wants a visitor to know that his family offers more than just the traditional deli sandwich fare.

"We do specials, meatloaf every day, Philly steaks are really big," he says in the thick accent of his native Greece. "We do homemade soups, chicken pot pie, that kind of stuff."

What you won't see anywhere on the menu are the words "organic," "free-range," "low-fat," or "gluten-free."

"If you're going to want that stuff, I'm not sure that we're the best place," Michael Alvanos says. "It's ultimately how we've been successful — just cooking food the way it's supposed to be. Home-style. We've tried, but Cobb salad doesn't sell well."

This is the same family that opened a second business last year, a diner in Colchester, and called it "The Guilty Plate."

The Alvanos family ran the Parkway on Williston Road in South Burlington for years. But when their landlord demanded a steep rent increase seven years ago, they bailed and looked for a new business. They found that Red Roberts, Pine Street's predecessor on the northeast corner of Flynn Avenue, was on the market. The family saw potential in the neighborhood.

"Red's," a South End mainstay since the 1950s, used to get lots of customers from the old General Dynamics plant that opened in 1948 and employed 3,500 people at its peak. Now, Burton Snowboards and Dealer.com employ dozens along the Pine Street corridor; funky shops, studios and eateries are opening at a steady clip; and the South End Art Hop brings 30,000 visitors to the neighborhood on the weekend after Labor Day.

For all the changes in the area, its appetite for old-school comfort food remains a constant.

By the time the Alvanos family bought the store, the lunch counter business at Red Roberts had slumped, which put more pressure on convenience store sales. The Alvanos family quickly turned that around. They de-emphasized the cigarettes and soda and motor oil, made sure they had enough staff to fill orders quickly, and now make 75 percent of their money from the deli counter.

During peak hours, they move wordlessly around each other. When a frozen hotdog drops to the floor, it gets kicked in the direction of the trashcan; there's no time to pick it up.

"Drop too many in one day, you're fired," Michael Alvanos says, sounding like a man who has never wanted to fire anyone.

Deli workers chat up regulars when they can. But at the lunch hour, most of the conversation is confined to the familiar staccato notes of ordering.

"No banana peppers or jalapenos."

"White or wheat?"

"Here you are, honey."

"Any herbs or spices?"

"I'll do soup and sandwich."

Around 12:30 p.m., the phone rings, nearly inaudible over the din. Pine Street's most loyal customer is on the line, as he is every day at this time.

"This is Ray. I'm coming down."

Ray Sibley works as a parts manager at the nearby Burlington Hyundai dealership. The guys at Pine Street make his lunch — tuna sandwich, white onion, one slice of tomato, on whole wheat bread — and leave it, wrapped, in the same spot on the counter every day.

Sibley shows up a few minutes later. Asked why he doesn't pack a lunch instead of spending more than 20 bucks a week at the deli, he seems taken aback. Sandwich in hand, Sibley pauses, starts to speak, and pauses again. Finally, he settles on this:

"I don't see these guys if I don't come down."