- Associated Press - Saturday, December 12, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - In Spring Valley, a family of four sits outside Wagshal’s Delicatessen on a warm Saturday in November, eating sandwiches thick with corned beef, roast turkey and tuna salad. Inside, a small crowd hovers in front of the deli case while Maria Duval, who has worked there for 40 years, cranks out orders with two assistants. Across the store, executive chef Ann-Marie James, a 17-year veteran, dishes up curried vegetables, roti and words of wisdom in the accent of her native Trinidad.

“There’s no softer pillow than a clear conscience!” Her customer nods and asks for a loaf of black olive garlic bread.

Marking its 90th year of business this year, Wagshal’s has existed in the small, eight-storefront shopping center at the corner of 49th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW since 1939, when Sam Wagshal moved it there from Columbia Road and 18th Street NW. (He opened the original at Ninth and G streets NW in 1925.) Bill Fuchs bought the business from Sam’s son, Ben, in 1990.

Since then, Fuchs (rhymes with “books”), 65, has quietly acquired almost every space that came available in the shopping center, expanding the Wagshal’s imprint there from 1,150 to 6,000 square feet as if putting additions on a starter house he never left.

At first glance, it’s like the old-time delis many of us grew up with - the kind of place, says Fuchs, “where people call to say they forgot to pay.” It may seem in sharp contrast to stainless-steel-and-subway-tile hipster meccas such as Union Market and Union Kitchen, but inspection of its inventory, with packages of imported Ibérico cured meats, gluten-free breads, quinoa, farro, rose petal jam and boutique gins, reveals otherwise.

Fuchs’s appreciation of good food started early. He was born in Cuxhaven, Germany, and immigrated to Milwaukee with his family when he was 9. They lived in the thriving German community there, and his mother, a good cook, diligently sourced high-quality ingredients. His grandfather was a butcher, passing on his skills to Fuchs.

After high school and a tour in Vietnam, Fuchs worked throughout the 1970s for food service companies including Pillsbury and Mother Tucker’s, the latter a Canada-based chain of restaurants for which he opened and operated outlets in various North American cities. When another job brought him to Washington in 1983, he knew he wanted to settle here.

“The town rocks with opportunity. It is a fertile ground where anything can be done if you have the moxie,” he says.

Fuchs heard of Wagshal’s through word of mouth and became a regular, in company with many of Washington’s power elite. (Signed photographs of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole are among the many hanging on the wall behind the cashier.) He eventually approached Ben Wagshal to buy the business. It took a year to persuade Wagshal to sell.

Since then, Fuchs has managed - with the help of his 61-year-old sister, Silvia Alexander; his two sons, Aaron, 37, and Brian, 35; and an extended family of employees - to identify trends, diversify and remain current.

He took things slowly at first. It was four years, for instance, before he started accepting credit cards. “I was reluctant to make changes, because the customers and staff were so used to the way things had always been done,” he explains. “There was no toaster. They didn’t have bacon. They didn’t sell roast chickens on Sundays. I started doing that, added to the menu, doubled the salad offerings.”

The clientele and employees warmed up to him and accepted improvements to the status quo over the next few years, but soon the small space and tiny kitchen proved limiting. In 1995, he opened Wagshal’s Market, with top-quality meat, fish and produce, a few doors down from the deli. It bombed.

“I did my due diligence, but the people who told me they’d be interested in that were deli customers who didn’t cook. They had no interest in buying meat,” says Fuchs.

Fuchs didn’t give up. He built a customer base from scratch by buying steaks from Safeway and putting them next to his, which were much more expensive. He gave people half of each and told them to take them home and taste them. “They could tell the difference. Chicken, the same way.”

After about three years, the market started taking off; it’s now known as the go-to place when only the best will do, especially among professional chefs such as José Andrés, Scott Drewno and Victor Albisu. Pam Ginsberg, known as Pam the Butcher, started working there in 2006 and has inspired a cult following of regulars who depend on her to tell them what to buy and how to prepare it.

The market proved a springboard for other ventures. Food that needed to be used up, known as slough-off, wound up in prepared foods sold in the deli. The professionals who lived in the neighborhood, many with children, couldn’t get enough of it. In 1997, Fuchs built a commissary kitchen to keep up with demand and to serve the family’s growing Spring Valley Catering business.

Another offshoot of the market was the creation of Spring Valley meals, a line of 22 frozen items including lamb stew, beef bourguignon, seafood casserole and sweet noodle kugel. The company now sells about 400 of the meals a week from the Spring Valley store, a 4,000-square-foot market and fast-casual restaurant it opened on New Mexico Avenue in 2013 and the Colonnade, a Massachusetts Avenue condominium building where Fuchs lives. He installed an $11,000 frozen-food vending machine there to see whether sales would justify buying more. (They do.)

The kitchen has undergone two more conversions over the years, the most recent in 2015. Now all of the baking - pastries, breads and cakes - is done in-house, providing another revenue stream.

In 2008, the Fuchses entered the import business, starting first with cured, then fresh, Fermín acorn-fed Spanish Ibérico pork. They sell those products nationally through distributors, in addition to a line of Spanish sauces, called Just for Cheese, and fruit spreads.

Fuchs detected the recent pastrami resurgence early on. After taking years to perfect his three-week method of making it, he rebranded it in 2012 as aged Prime Angus smoked brisket, and it became a top-seller at the deli.

“They are sourcing the best meat, aging it, brining it, smoking it to perfection,” says Andrés, “like the great pastramis of the world. We should stop looking elsewhere for the best of this and that. We have it right here!”

Fuchs introduced the product at the 2015 Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. The Oakland A’s served 8,000 four-ounce portions of it in their stadium during the past season. Major food distributors picked it up. Sysco tripled its first order. Drewno thinks it’s so good he uses it in a fried-rice dish at the Source. A whole 11-pound brisket (under the now-trademarked Wagshal’s name) sells in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog for $299.99 ($239.99 on the Wagshal’s site, wagshalsimports.com).

Another on-point trend: barbecue. Fuchs and his sons hit the barbecue circuit, devised their own method for pork and beef ribs, chicken, (uncured) brisket and pork barbecue, and opened Pitmasters Back Alley BBQ carryout behind the deli in May. They took over the pizzeria space next door, expanded the deli and added a sit-down restaurant in November.

Fuchs says he expects to hit $13 million in total sales this year, with 115 employees serving 15,000 people a week. Asked what the future holds, he says: “I don’t want to be king of the world. I can control my own little corner. I think I’m happy with that.”

We’ll just see.


Information from: The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com

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