- Associated Press - Monday, May 9, 2016

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) - Much has changed on a nearly deserted street on the outskirts of downtown Shreveport over the past several decades.

Even its name was transformed from Christian Street to Sam R. Fertitta Drive to recognize one of the city’s oldest surviving establishments, Fertitta’s Delicatessen.

“We are the oldest in Shreveport and the state of Louisiana — the same family that owns it,” said owner Agatha Fertitta-McCall. “There are older restaurants, but we are the same continually owned family that’s been here since 1927.”

Fertitta-McCall’s grandparents, John and Mary Fulco, constructed and opened the grocer in 1927.

Her father Sam R. Fertitta and her mother Florence are responsible for turning the grocer into a deli and then a sandwich shop, serving the famous “Muffy” - a muffuletta with their signature style.

In its nearly 90 years in business, the family-owned eatery has become an historic landmark in the community and in the hearts of customers near and far.

“Fertitta’s popularity and longevity is as much about its’ owners and history as it is the food,” said Liz Swaine, director of the Shreveport Downtown Development Authority. “Sure, the muffalettas, sweet tea, pizza and po-boys are great, but how many places offer good food with a side of history from the people who have lived it? Fertitta’s is a Shreveport icon, still as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.”

The key to success and longevity despite the major growth of chain restaurants in the city is partially because of the family foundation, said Fertitta-McCall. Only family members work at the dining locale.

Fertitta-McCall and her husband Robert have owned the restaurant for 36 years. They are assisted by family members, including their sister-in-law Mary Alice Fertitta, who was married to one of three of Fertitta-McCall’s brothers, Mickey Fertitta. And occasionally Fertitta-McCall’s children give a hand when in a pinch.

“It’s always been family,” said Fertitta-McCall. “When you know it’s family, it gives a warmth to people. They come in and know this is the Fertitta family and they’re going to treat us like family.”

And despite growth in chain restaurants and the competing restaurants offering their versions of the muffuletta, Fertitta’s continues to hold their ground in the dining scene.

The restaurant sits almost isolated on Fairfield Avenue surrounded by grassy lots and trees. But it wasn’t always like that.

In the early days, Fertitta’s was flanked by about 30 shotgun houses, owned by Sam Fertitta, and the deli catered to the neighbors.

In 1949, Fertitta-McCall’s parents took over and ran it as a grocery store. And over time, the houses became outdated and the properties were demolished, leaving the deli to stand alone.

The Fertittas felt the impact as business began to slow down when the oil and gas business took a turn for the worse and big box grocery stores came to the area causing many “mom and pop” businesses went under, she said.

In 1960, in an attempt to revive it and attract new customers, Sam Fertitta made a marketing move that would end up being a power play.

Business expanded when the Sicilian entrepreneur made the business decision to import food products - including Italian cold cuts, olives and pasta - from New Orleans to Shreveport, introducing them to city residents. Instead of selling the ingredient a la carte, her father moved into the sandwich making business.

“We started bringing the Italian bread up, which was the muffuletta bread, from New Orleans,” said Fertitta-McCall. “A gentleman came in one day in December and he worked at the United Gas Building, which is now the State Building, and my dad offered him a piece of the muffuletta bread which was frozen, and he’d thawed it and (he) made a sandwich out of it…. My dad told the man, ‘I want to sell this muffuletta bread… What do you think?’ The man said, ‘Look, Mr. Fertitta, you need to make sandwiches. The bread’s awesome, but this sandwich is great!’”

The plan to advertise the sandwich was to erect a neon sign on top of the building reading, “Fertitta’s Home of the Muffuletta.” But because neon lights cost so much, he shortened it to “Muffy,” a term now trademarked by the Fertittas.

The sign still stands today and the sandwich became the hero for saving the family business. And additional menu items were added in recent years, like a vegetarian muffuletta and salad and more.

And Fertitta’s continued to flourish despite the hardships.

In 1998, the building was added to the Historic Landmark Registry.

It’s a popular destination for residents who have dined at Fertitta’s for decades, as well as younger customers in more recent years. It’s huge a tourist draw, too.

“When we are hosting large group tours we always call on Mrs. Agatha and see if we can bring them there to the restaurant by charter bus because the places just oozes history and personality and the feel is so authentic and unchanged by time,” said Chris Jay, Public Relations and Social Media Manager at the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau. “Those are the kinds of things that visitors and travelers are looking for, especially since the rise of cable television food and restaurant programs.”

The building holds a lot of history and memories, in which many are documented on the walls of the restaurant through photos, news clips and other memorabilia which Fertitta-McCall is glad to share with customers.

“Agatha is as much the attraction as the restaurant is,” said Jay. “She’ll always stop what she’s doing, even if she’s under a lot of pressure and she’ll talk to our groups and tell them about the history of the restaurant.”

Others make it a place for the own family and trust it the Fertittas with their most treasured memories and moments from birthday celebrations to weddings to funeral repasts.

And the plan is to pass the tradition down to her twin grandsons so the family business will continue for generations to come.

“I want them to hurry up and grow up so I can give this this building,” she said. “But they’re only nine months old, so we’re a little ways away from that.”

___

Information from: The Times, http://www.shreveporttimes.com

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