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Opening a Local Deli During a Pandemic

A Chat with Justin Leon, Owner of Lambo's Deli & Grocery

— December 9, 2020 — Business
Toronto's food scene recently welcomed Lambo's Deli & Grocery, a progressive sandwich shop that brings a sense of nostalgia and vibrancy to the city. Owner Justin Leon draws inspiration from global delis and bodegas, bringing back basic sandwiches that offers something for everyone. Due to the current uncertainties, many precautions were taken when designing the location to ensure the safety of staff and customers.

I chatted with Justin to learn more about the main influences behind Lambo's, some challenges that were faced, how the community can play a role to support small businesses, and what he envisions for the future of the industry.

Can you tell us a little bit about Lambo’s Deli & Grocery? How did the idea come into fruition?

I had the sandwich shop idea percolating for the last decade. It came from visiting major cities, especially New York, and walking into any bodega and grabbing an amazing sandwich. Something fast, easy, and casual – an experience that I found rare in Toronto. Lambo’s is also based on my upbringing; I'm Italian – I was raised in Woodbridge – and I have fond childhood memories of eating cured meats and cheeses that my Nonno would make at home.

What inspired the menu and what are some main influences behind the design of the location?

For the menu, I took little elements from my favorite sandwich places – from something as accessible as a Subway to the most upscale sandwich joint imaginable – and combined their best elements to inform Lambo’s offering. We pickle all the vegetables in-house. The meats and cheeses are either Italian or locally sourced. We roast the beef in-house. The vegetables, meats, and cheeses are sliced daily. We even have a Vegan Caesar Salad – which, to me, is arguably better than the real thing. For us, it’s all about fresh options for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.

The design is based on a retro deli feel. We have the pendant lights, curved wood counter and green colour scheme reminiscent of Nathan's Famous in New York. The space was formerly a convenience store. We gutted it this summer then designed the space and built it up ourselves. We had a lot of control over the kitchen flow and how it integrates with the grocery section. We signed our lease in March 2020 on the day that we went into lockdown; our landlord was lovely and let us push everything back until June, and then we started the build out. That meant we had the good fortune to adapt the shop to COVID-19 and tailor everything to the new normal and protect our employees and customers. So, the design is based off both function and aesthetics.

Due to COVID-19, what were some of the challenges faced when opening a restaurant during these times?

We went into lockdown as soon as we signed the lease, which was a bit of a headache! It offered challenges every step of the way – from getting licensing from the city, to running out of supplies when we were doing the build-out because there was a national lumber shortage. Things that should’ve had a quick turnaround instead took weeks to complete. Considering delays beyond our control, we were finally able to open early October. All that said, we were lucky to build Lambo’s to suit the new normal, instead of having to pivot. It's been hard dealing with the pandemic and growing through it, but I also feel blessed that we got to work with it, instead of against it.

What are some steps you and the team took in order to meet all of the safety standards? What does it take to seamlessly pivot with all the uncertainties?

We have hand sanitizer at two touchpoints, a Plexiglass barrier between customers and employees, strict face mask enforcement (for staff and customers alike), frequent cleaning of high touch surfaces and a capacity limit. The major thing is that we highly encourage pre-ordering through Lambo's. It makes for an almost contactless pick-up system. You schedule a time you want to pick up your order, come in at that time, say your name, and we give you your order. It not only makes the restaurant flow more smoothly and limits interactions but also allows us to accommodate a larger volume of orders. We also recently launched local delivery – through our own in-house platform – which is another seamless, low interaction option.

How can the community help support local businesses during these times?

Shop local as much as possible! If you don’t have the means, you can also share your love on social, write a positive Google review or simply send an encouraging DM. Our capitalist system is set up to benefit the larger players. Even now, in the second lockdown, the Walmarts and Amazons of the world don’t have to close but the Mom and Pops do. Supporting your local, independent shop is essential. Those little shops and venues are the cultural fabric of the city. Our heart and soul. You don't want to see those go under because, even before the pandemic, Toronto was moving in that direction. This has been and might continue to be the nail in the coffin for a lot of iconic institutions.

What changes do you anticipate for the future of this industry in the next 5 years?

Even as the pandemic winds down and we become inoculated, the current mentality won’t fully dissipate now that we've experienced this sort of collective trauma. Consumer habits are going to generally stay very similar; there's going to be more of a focus for on takeout and quick service. Delivery is going to be huge, and third-party delivery apps like Uber and Skip the Dishes will become more popular; that's an issue because they take a huge – I would even say unsustainable – commission. I’m hoping the government will step in and lower those fees. I generally think takeout and delivery are going to keep growing in popularity; it was trending that way pre-pandemic and now it’s been further exacerbated.

Image Credit: Lambo's Deli & Grocery