‘It’s about knowing our customers by their first names’Dec 29, 2020 05:04PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
For the better part of three decades, James and Jean Malin raised their nine children in a four-bedroom Cape Cod house that was located two blocks away from the St. Elizabeth parish in the City of Wilmington.
In 1974, James, a butcher and meat manager, purchased the Stafford’s grocery store at 812 South College Avenue in Newark, so that he could know the feeling of owning his own business.
When the butcher shop and grocery first opened, the entire Malin family lived in a two-bedroom apartment located above the store. James and Jean occupied one bedroom, the three daughters took the second, and the six brothers slept in an attic that did not provide plumbing or heat. The space was dotted with mattresses that were tossed in makeshift angles.
“We all lent my father some money so that he could start his business,” recalled store president Ken Malin. “I lent him $3,000. I was only 20 years old at the time, but I lent him $3,000, which was all the money I had in the world, so that he could buy the place. We all pitched in and we made it happen.”
Forty-six years after the Malin brothers first moved from a four-bedroom home to that attic, Malin’s Deli has earned its place as one of the most successful family businesses in Newark. From Monday to Saturday, its has become a place of sure things: the comfort of knowing that customers will enjoy a freshly-made sandwich that will be delivered on time; that they will be welcomed at the door; and that on any given day, there is a strong likelihood that you will carry on a decades-long conversation with Ken and his wife Stephanie; Bob Malin and his wife Barbara; brother Jim; and the store’s matriarch, Mo Miller.
Today, the hundreds of people who regularly visit Malin’s every day are not just customers picking up an award-winning cheese steak or a to-go salad. They are witnesses to how a small business has continually adjusted to one town’s changing identity – the closing of a manufacturing plant, the expansion of a University and the widening breadth of its demographics and culinary tastes.
“Change happens slowly, and we’ve just rolled with those changes and continuously adapt to those changes,” Ken said. “You begin to develop a rapport with people, so if they want to order 40 or 50 breakfast sandwiches, you take care of them. That’s how you continue to lead a successful business – by listening to our customers, giving them a good product at a good price and you give them food service and you stand back and let the business come to you.”
When they first opened, Malin’s was a 3,000-square-foot butcher shop and grocery store, located beside a successful sub shop. In the late 80s, as large box grocery stores began popping up in Newark, it caused a financial strain on the business. Meanwhile, right next door, the sub shop was pushing out sandwiches to hungry customers at a fast pace. For two years, Ken left the family business to work for the Wonder Bread Company.
“I wanted my father to begin making sandwiches to help boost our business, and he told me, ‘When I retire, you can make sandwiches,’” Ken said. “He didn’t want to get involved in that. In 1990, he came up to me and said, ‘I am ready to retire. You guys can do what you want.’”
Ken gave his employer two weeks’ notice. He got rid of the butcher block. He removed the band saw. He removed the produce case and meat case. Soon, the lines that were forming next door began forming at Malin’s. A year later, the competing sub shop next door packed up and left.
Over the course of the next 30 years, Malin’s has supplied breakfast and lunch to every shift at the former Chrysler plant. It has fed three decades of University of Delaware students and employees -- especially members of UD’s athletic department and the Star Campus, whose offices are just down the street.
Every morning, the sweet aroma of coffee permeates the store, and breakfast sandwiches are made and packaged and end up in the hands of early-morning commuters on their way to work. As lunch hour approaches, the Malin family becomes an assembly line of interchangeable parts – taking phone orders, preparing lunches, slicing meats and condiments, patrolling the cash registers and stocking shelves.
If there is one intangible that has helped define Malin’s over the last several decades, it cannot be found in a breakfast, a lunch or in any jar or container on the shelves, and it’s a priceless one, Ken said.
“Too many times, customers come into a store and they’re given a number, and suddenly, they don’t have a name. They’re order number 01235,” Ken said. “To us, it’s about knowing our customers by their first names. For instance, when Pete comes in for his sandwich, we tell him, ‘Pete, you had the ham on rye? I’ve got your order right here.’ That small gesture is so important. It’s like the character of Norm on ‘Cheers.’ People like coming into a store and having people call them by name.
“We didn’t have a grill when we first began,” Ken added. “They want cheese steaks? We put in a grill in. Then they asked for French fries, so we put a fryer in. Then they began asking for salads, so we began making salads. We continue to listen and respond to the needs and the requests of our customers.
“It’s been done over 40-soemthing years, and when I think about the way we have adapted to the changes we’ve all seen in Newark during that time, it’s pretty overwhelming.”
When Ken turned 65, he considered the prospect of retiring. He is now 66.
“Now I’m thinking of retiring when I’m 67, but in all likelihood, I won’t,” he said. “There is something magical that happens here every day. I get in, I get my coffee, I get the blood flowing and jump into the rhythm of the store.
“I am afraid that if I ever left this, I would miss that magic, and also, I know for certain that I would miss the customers.”
Especially the hundreds he knows by name.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].