Friends make deli "go-to place"By Maura Hurley
They have no time for vacations or girlfriends, they miss out on family gatherings, and despite a 25-year friendship they rarely get to hang out together anymore. It may not be much of a life, but for Mike Kharsa and Miguel Mejia, it's just part of making a living as owners of Grand Leader Market and Deli on San Mateo Avenue.
Kharsa, 40, and Mejia, 38, bought Grand Leader nine years ago, securing a loan against a house and using money they earned working at Oroweat bakery in South San Francisco.
Kharsa, whose parents emigrated from the West Bank and Gaza in the late 1960s, knew the deli business. From ages 12 to 25, he worked at his uncle's deli in Noe Valley, learning the business side of things and how to cook deli-style. He was 16 when he met Mejia, who used to stop by with his brother for piroshkis. They've been friends ever since.
Mejia didn't know much about delis, but his mother once owned a grocery store in Zapopan in Jalisco, Mexico, and he dreamed of one day owning a business himself. When Mike told him about the grocery/deli for sale in San Bruno, he told his friend to count him in.
For years, Kharsa didn't think a deli would figure in his future.
"When I left my uncle's deli in 1995, I swore I'd never own a business like that," he said. "Growing up, I saw the grueling hours it took. I didn't want that for myself." He changed his mind after working jobs at Foster Farms and Oroweat.
"In the food business, you get a sense of satisfaction when you make a sandwich for someone and it makes them happy," he said. "I didn't have that at other jobs."
Kharsa and Mejia may seem unlikely business partners. Kharsa is the serious one who worries about the business and what he can do to improve things. He's friendly, but so serious that even when he's getting his picture taken, he can't smile for the camera. Mejia, on the other hand, always has a smile on his face, laughs easily and doesn't seem to worry much.
"I love life," he said.
Being friends as well as business partners complicates matters for the pair. For Kharsa, the friendship comes before the business, but he admits that while that might be good for the friendship, it's not always so for the business.
Sandwiches at Grand Leader are the usual deli fare, but come in hefty portions and feature fresh ingredients. Starting at 7 in the morning, Kharsa and a helper prepare the food, making half a dozen salads and cooking roast beef, turkey, meatballs and chicken in a small industrial-style oven behind the counter.
"Most delis don't make their own stuff like we do here," Kharsa said. Another thing that distinguishes the deli is the coffee, which is made one cup at a time from freshly ground coffee the way it's done at upscale coffee places.
"I wanted to do something that was better than Starbucks and could compete with 7-Eleven," he said.
On a recent Saturday morning, a steady stream of customers attested to the deli's popularity.
"The sandwiches are the best ever," said Joseph Moncada, a union floor installer who lives nearby. "They're great for sporting events, and my kids can come in and get things on credit."
Moncada's brother, Felipe, a ramper at SFO, echoed his brother's sentiments, adding, "They really fill you up. At other places it would take two sandwiches to do that."
San Bruno police officer Joe Baker, a five-year veteran of the force and off-duty for the day, is another fan. "I like these guys," he said. "The food is awesome and I come everyday for the coffee."
Postal worker David Zane, in the deli on his lunch break, said that he knew that it was "the place to go for sandwiches and coffee" when he saw people from the water and police departments coming in.
Kharsa and Mejia lost customers when the recession brought the construction industry to a virtual standstill.
"A lot of blue collar workers lost their jobs, and just disappeared as customers," Mejia said. "Now we depend on SFO employees, city workers and cops to fill the gap."
But the downturn has hurt them. One of the problems, they say, is that the people on the other side of El Camino Real don't come downtown so they don't know about them.
"San Mateo Avenue is a beautiful street, but it needs more diverse businesses to attract more people," Kharsa said. "There are Mexican and Asian restaurants, but too many vacant storefronts and dollar stores and nothing to keep people on the street window shopping. It needs a Ross or a Marshalls."
Between the deli and the market, Kharsa and Mejia put in between 60 and 90 hours a week. Kharsa works the morning shift from 7am to 5pm, while Mejia comes in at 12noon and stays till 10pm. The deli is open from 7am to 2pm; the market from 7am to 10pm.
They agree that what keeps them going is the interaction with their customers. They know most everyone by name and banter good-naturedly across the deli counter.
"It takes a lot to run a business like this and sometimes it feels like I'm going through the motions," Kharsa said. "But if I let it go, I would miss the customers, particularly watching the kids who come in grow up. There's a certain joy to that that I wouldn't get anywhere else."
Added Mejia, "A lot gets taken away from you at a job like this, particularly time with your family, but I get to meet a lot of great people and that makes it worth it."
Copyright ©2010 San Bruno Patch. Published 11/17/2010.