Driving southwest on Auburn Boulevard and exiting Citrus Heights at Manzanita Avenue, it’s easy to miss The German Deli.
With rough, wood pillars in front and a low roof of dark shingles, the single-story Sacramento store at 5859 Auburn Blvd. looks like a 1960s roadside market that your grandparents might have found commonplace along a country road in California, or Kansas, or maybe Alabama.
That’s what The German Deli is, an unapologetic throwback to a time when customers and market employees knew each other on a first-name basis and favorite food orders were instantly placed by face recognition.
“For 50 years, most of the advertising has been by word of mouth,” said Allyson Smith, the deli’s 40-year-old operating manager. “Some of our customers are children or grandchildren of customers we had years ago.”
The deli is marking its 50th year in 2016 and is hosting an open-to-the-public “birthday party” from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Like most of the deli’s “marketing” efforts dating back decades, it’s an informal come-if-you-can invitation, with a raffle and 50-cent hot dogs.
Some of our customers are children or grandchildren of customers we had years ago.
Allyson Smith, The German Deli operating manager
Smith handles day-to-day operations but co-owns the business with her mother, Vivian Smith, and her brother Steve Johanson.
Allyson Smith explained that the deli has survived just about everything – recessions, generational changes in eating habits and even several motor vehicles crashing into the storefront, which is aligned in a straight line where Manzanita Avenue T-bones into Auburn Boulevard.
Smith says the market’s primary appeal has not changed since Lyndon Johnson was president of the United States: a counter stocked with scores of colorful German meats and cheeses that fill the nose with mouth-watering aromas.
On display are hams, liverwurst, spreadable mettwurst, bratwurst, Bavarian cheeses, exotic-looking sausages and bologna to name just a few. Jars of various kinds of kraut and mustard are lined up in rows, along with European coffees. In the deli’s walk-in freezer, you’ll find strudel, pretzels, German potato salad, pickles and stacks of rolls.
“We know our customers, so we try to have a little bit of everything,” Smith said, adding, “It’s been that way for a long time.”
Joe and Lisa Gibson opened what would become The German Deli in 1966. At first, it was a simple neighborhood grocery store known as Gibson’s Market.
Back then, the market was in a sparsely developed area. The suburban growth that would swell into webs of subdivisions and businesses in Citrus Heights, Roseville and Carmichael was still in its infancy.
Before the 1960s came to a close, the site became The German Deli. Lisa Gibson was the German bride of a U.S. Air Force veteran, and she had extensive knowledge and love for the meats, cheeses and breads of her homeland. The Gibsons stocked their shelves with German foods and gifts, later adding a sprinkling of imported European beers and wines.
Joe Gibson died in 1988, and Lisa Gibson is 87 years old. Her daughter, Stephanie Urban, recalled the deli’s early days during a sit-down interview in the market last week.
“All those years ago, there were so many Germans in the area, it was incredible, and they would come here to buy their food,” Urban said.
Sacramento Turn Verein, the 162-year-old German cultural center, said the area has long had a substantial German population, dating all the way back to the arrival of German-born John Augustus Sutter.
“Of course, Germans were not very popular during World War I and World War II, but I would say that through immigration after World War II, a lot of Germans came to Sacramento and interest in the Turn Verein picked up again. And now, I would say there is a very strong presence in Sacramento,” said Susan Pelz, a Turn Verein member and a 43-year local resident.
German wives of American military men were deli regulars from the beginning, Urban said, but as word spread of the diverse German food offerings, more customers found their way to the market. Even during the socially divisive days of the Vietnam War, Urban said The German Deli was a haven for those who served.
“My mother was so respectful of the military back then, during the Vietnam era,” Urban said. “If someone from the military came in, she would always say, ‘Make sure he gets a sandwich before he goes.’ That’s just the way it was.”
Urban also recalled customers from far-flung California and Nevada locales making the long drive to visit the little deli to stock up on German favorites. The market sometimes shipped special orders to customers living far outside the Sacramento area.
Urban eventually took over many of the duties of managing the market for her mom. By 2007, however, Lisa Gibson wanted to retire and was prepared to walk away from the business.
Enter Mike Smith, a regular German Deli customer.
In February 2007, Smith dropped by the market and ordered a lachsschinken smoked loin of pork sandwich. The sandwich was served to him with a jolt.
Smith told The Sacramento Bee in a December 2007 story: “The lady hands me my sandwich, and she tells me to enjoy it. It will be the last because the business is closing. I just couldn’t let that happen.”
A finance manager with no previous experience in running a deli, Smith nevertheless struck a deal to buy the business, recalling that “the deal was practically conceived overnight and closed March 1 (2007).”
Mike Smith died last year, but Vivian Smith recalled last week that she initially was shocked to learn of her husband’s on-the-spot deal to buy the deli.
“I was surprised of course … but it was something that he wanted to have for Allyson to take over someday, a legacy,” Vivian Smith said.
Allyson Smith said she was grateful for the business opportunity that her father gave her, although she wasn’t exceedingly versed in German culture and language early on. Urban turned out to be a willing coach in that department, and Smith quickly learned the specific tastes of longtime German customers.
Urban said her pupil already had a gift for working with people: “She believes in total customer satisfaction.”
Smith said she quickly realized that many of the market’s German customers considered the deli a tangible link to their days in Europe.
To this day, well-worn maps of Europe and German cities are mounted on a wall in the market.
“These have been here for years. Customers like to come over here and show us where they came from,” Smith said.
Smith said German customers spanning multiple generations still make up a significant share of The German Deli’s customer base. “Some of them have been coming here since before I was born,” she said.
Smith added that the deli also gets business from longtime Sacramento-area residents who suddenly decide to drop in: “We’ve had customers come in and say, ‘I’ve driven by here a million times and decided to stop today.’”
Not surprisingly, the market’s busiest time of year generally runs from October through December, with shoppers stocking up on food and drink for Oktoberfest celebrations and Christmas-season gatherings.
Over the course of a year, Smith said the deli’s diverse sandwich bar is a customer favorite. Sausage plates also sell well.
German Deli shelves also are stocked with packaged, specialty European foods that you typically won’t find at general purpose supermarkets. Among the popular offerings are German-made Grabower Minis, light wafers topped with creamy marshmallow and sealed with chocolate.
The market also sells various other German items, including an assortment of beer steins, T-shirts, specialty gifts and greeting cards.
What about the next 50 years?
Allyson said she’s hopeful that her 6-year-old son, J.T. Guill, will someday take over the family businesses, and she believes the deli’s longevity deserves some recognition. Smith said she’s started an effort to have The German Deli certified as a California historic site.
The German Deli
Location: 5859 Auburn Blvd., Sacramento (at Manzanita Avenue)
Origins: Opened as Gibson’s Market in 1966 by Joe and Lisa Gibson
Co-owners: Allyson Smith, Vivian Smith and Steve Johanson
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays
Niche: German meats, Bavarian cheeses, breads and desserts, plus imported European wines and beers
Saturday celebration: From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, The German Deli will celebrate its golden anniversary with a public celebration, including a raffle and 50-cent hot dogs
More information: 916-349-9493 (sacgermandeli.com is under construction)
Sources: The German Deli, Bee research