Columbus, Ohio USA
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Serving Subs and Salads with a Side of Heart
Spinelli's Deli offers breakfast, lunch, dinner and advocacy
by Dennis Fiely
February 2009 Issue
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©Photos by William Bullock
Joe Spinelli, a longtime advocate for the Victorian Village neighborhood
was presented with the 2009 President's Award by the Village Society.
A lost soul approaches the front door of Spinelli’s Deli in the Thurber Center just as co-owner Joe Spinelli is talking about the problem of aggressive panhandling in the Short North.
Unshaven and unkempt, the visitor wobbles as if intoxicated, but that is not the worst of it. “Oh my god,” Spinelli observes, “He’s peed his pants.”
Spinelli darts from a seat inside his deli and intercepts the straggler before he can enter. “Not today,” Spinelli tells him. “You can’t come in today. You need to lie down and sober up.”
Spinelli’s handling of the situation deftly blends the compassion of a social worker (which Spinelli was) with the self-interest of a small business owner (which Spinelli is). “Not today” reflects a firm stand for now but implies that the visitor may be welcomed back under different circumstances.
“It is a constant struggle,” Spinelli said. “My humanistic side tells me to engage the homeless, instead of shooing them away. But I can’t have them scaring off my customers.”
His humanistic side often comforts beggars with a bagel or warm cup of soup. Spinelli even knows a few by name. His capitalistic side, however, supported Columbus City Council’s recent crackdown on panhandlers.
The yin-yang of his character is part of Spinelli’s upbringing and has served him well as a longtime advocate for his neighborhood. The Victorian Village Society last month honored Spinelli with its “2009 President’s Award,” largely for his devotion to the Victorian Village Home & Garden Tour, for which he has served 10 years as a committee member and the past three years as chairman.
“Joe’s outstanding leadership has transitioned the tour from a break-even event into a highly lucrative fundraiser for the preservation and advocacy activities of the society,” said society president Jeff Smith. “Joe is not shy about asking people to step up and contribute, but he does it with such humor and style that people don’t know they are being asked.”
Spinelli’s humor and style have distinguished Spinelli’s Deli as “the neighborhood’s favorite place for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” according to the Victorian Village Society Web site. He has used it as a springboard for community leadership.
In addition to involvement in his pet project, the Home & Garden Tour, Spinelli continues eight years of service on the Short North Business Association board that included a stint as president. He is a graduate of the Leadership Columbus program and a member of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Council.
Perhaps more important to the masses, if a group needs food for a neighborhood event, Spinelli is there to provide it. He routinely feeds hungry volunteers for Comfest, Friends of Goodale Park, Stonewall Columbus among others. Fittingly, his loaves-and-fishes largesse extends to King Avenue United Methodist Church, where he sits on the administrative council and operates the church kitchen.
“I believe every business has the responsibility to be involved in his community and give back,” Spinelli said. “I think what you give is what you get. Sure, it’s good marketing that gets your name out there. But it also sets an example for other businesses to make this a better place.”
Juli Rogers and Dave Ramirez, owners of r design & printing, 30 N. Fourth St., patterned their business philosophy after Spinelli’s. “Joe has always been our role model,” said Rogers, current president of the Short North Business Association. “Even before we opened here, we’d see Joe out there working hard and bearing Danish at nearly every community event. I knew then that if I ever owned my own business, I wanted to be like Joe. I used to have a boss who thought volunteerism would cost him money, but Joe inspired me never to think like that.”
Spinelli, blending business savvy with community service.
Born and raised in the Cleveland area, Spinelli, 39, seemed destined to be a restaurant owner with a soft heart. He grew up in the trade, working in his grandfather’s Italian eateries. “I always liked the hustle and bustle of the business,” he said. “As a kid, I bussed tables and always talked to customers. In my mind, there is no such thing as not being hungry.”
His grandfather modeled a giving spirit, regularly inviting lonely hearts into his home on Thanksgiving Day. His mother valued community service. She encouraged her son as a teenager to volunteer for Hands Across America, a benefit event and publicity campaign in 1986 in which about seven million people held hands for 15 minutes in a human chain across the continental United States. “I was a line captain, in charge of filling one mile,” Spinelli recalled.
At the age of 15, Spinelli landed his first job at McDonald’s, where he rose to the position of manager, in charge of hiring and training new employees. He left McDonald’s after four years to attend the University of Akron and Capital University, where he parlayed a degree in social work into a brief career as a case manager and prevention specialist that included jobs coaching people with mental illness and coordinating activities in nursing homes.
Spinelli was working as a HIV/AIDS gay outreach specialist, passing out condoms in Canton, Ohio, bars when he met his future business partner, banker Bill Wade. While Spinelli enjoyed helping people in social services, “I hated the paperwork,” he said. He re-entered the food business with Wade, opening a Manhattan Bagel store at 767 Neil Ave., the current site of Spinelli’s Deli. “We decided to start with a franchise, because I had a good experience with one at McDonald’s,” Spinelli said.
The pair eventually severed ties with Manhattan Bagel and became independent operators when customers began requesting a more varied menu. Spinelli’s Deli now serves 22 sandwiches, nine salads, nine breakfast platters, nine breakfast sandwiches and five soups daily, and recently added a dinner menu of pasta and pizza with hours extended until 9 p.m.
“We still run it like a chain with customer comment cards, professionally designed signs and a strong emphasis on cleanliness,” Spinelli said. “But it has a mom-and-pop feel because people know me from my community involvement.”
Despite a rough year for the restaurant industry, the deli ended 2008 with retail sales up 10 percent over 2007 while its catering business remained strong, accounting for about 35 percent of revenue. “If there is a formula for our success, it is good service of fresh product at reasonable prices,” Spinelli said.
Spinelli and Wade have proved to be the perfect partners. Wade handles the financial management while Spinelli takes care of the marketing and product development. General manager Kelsey Maginn runs the day-to-day operation.
“Joe is the face of the company, while I am the behind-the-scenes guy,” Wade said. “My background is in banking and his is in social work, so it makes for a logical arrangement. We try our best to keep ourselves out of each other’s area of expertise. I support Joe’s commitment to the community 100 percent, although I have to remind him occasionally that we do have a budget.”
One of Spinelli’s few business disappointments is his inability to afford health coverage for his part-time employees. As a consequence, he occasionally pays out-of-pocket for their health care visits. “My premiums went up 26 percent last year,” he said. “Imagine what would happen to my business if I raised my prices 26 percent. The insurance companies have us by the balls. My staff is the heart and soul of my business. But many won’t see a doctor when they are sick. It makes me angry because it’s not fair.”
For his management style, Spinelli cites the influence of his grandfather “who knew his customers and listened to them,” Spinelli said. A survey of nearly 200 customers convinced Spinelli to open for dinner. The menu includes a sunflower chicken Caesar pizza recipe submitted by a customer in a loyal diner contest.
Based on customer feedback, he is considering the addition of organic coffees and a rewards program. “Bill and I had been thinking about opening a second location for a few years, but we decided against it because we like the community feel of our business. We feel like we are a big part of the Short North family,” Spinelli said. “I don’t think you could have a Spinelli’s Deli on Dublin Road.”
Spinelli discovered the Short North in the mid-’90s when he made annual sojourns from Cleveland to attend the Gay Pride Parade. He was so impressed with the neighborhood that he decided to move here and open a business. “I came for the Pride parade because it was the best one in the state,” Spinelli said. “But with Comfest happening that same weekend, there was just so much going on. It was quite an amazing experience, just so much fun. The city was so open and tolerant. Since then, I’ve always said, ‘If you are going to live in Ohio, live in Columbus.’”
Wade soon followed him because “Columbus was much more appealing than Cleveland,” Wade said.
They opened a Manhattan Bagel because they thought the area was “sorely in need of a breakfast spot,” Spinelli said. Inspired by early pioneers such as Short North Tavern owner John Allen and pm gallery owner Maria Galloway, Spinelli became active in community affairs. “This is one of the most amazing neighborhoods I’ve seen for its grass-roots activism,” Spinelli said.
Spinelli with his niece Kiana, an honors student at Ridgeview Middle School.
Spinelli juggles his professional life with family demands. He and his former housemate, James Freeman, retain legal custody of Spinelli’s 13-year-old niece, Kiana Spinelli, whose mother (Joe’s sister) has been engaged in a years-long battle with addiction. Spinelli and Freeman have raised Kiana since she was eight.
Although they are no longer a couple, Spinelli and Freeman remain friends and co-parents. Kiana calls them “Uncle Joe” and “Uncle James.” Of her unconventional upbringing, Kiana said, “At first I felt ashamed living with them. But my mom and dad assured me that they were just regular people who loved me. My friends don’t tease me much about it anymore, because they have gotten to know my uncles who would give the shirts off their backs for me.”
Spinelli has included Kiana in all aspects of his life. “My attitude is that wherever I go, she should come with me,” he said. “We’ve marched in Pride parades together, and I just took her to see the Columbus Symphony. She has gone up and down High Street with me to pass out flyers for the home tour.”
At home, Uncle Joe is a taskmaster. He refuses to let his niece, an honors student at Ridgeview Middle School, watch television until her homework is finished. And he requires her to read one book a week that’s not a school requirement. “She’s just getting into the Harry Potter series,” Spinelli said proudly.
His parenting demonstrates that Spinelli is no pushover. In the neighborhood, “I’ve been know to ruffle a few feathers,” he said. “You have to sometimes, because people don’t like change. I admit that I’m a typical Italian who can be loud and opinionated.”
When told that Spinelli often feeds the homeless in his store, one Short North business owner rolled his eyes in disgust. “That’s just encouraging them,” he said. But the president of the Short North Business Association disagreed. “With his background in social work, Joe knows the difference between people who are truly needy and those who are frightening our customers and trying to exploit them,” Juli Rogers said.
If something is not right, Spinelli can be stubbornly determined to fix it. When he objected to truck traffic generated by a poultry wholesaler in Harrison West, he complained to the police and videotaped the company’s activity to document sidewalk and curb damage.
His opinions sometimes buck conventional thinking. For example, he does not think parking is a major problem in the Short North. “People can find a place to park, they just don’t want to walk a few blocks,” he said. He’s critical of some of the independent shops that keep limited hours. “If you’re in retail, you need to act like it,” he said. “You can’t be open from noon to six and closed on Mondays.”
In an effort to professionalize the Short North Business Association and broaden its provincial view, he enthusiastically supported the hiring of John Angelo as executive director, over the grumbling of some business owners who questioned the value of the investment. “If the district is going to survive, it needs an outward focus, working with the city, Ohio State University and other neighborhood groups,” he said.
Spinelli favors affordable rents for gallery owners to preserve the artistic flavor of the Short North that slowly has been evolving into a bar and restaurant district. “Bars and restaurants are fine for the 1-670 cap, but we need to maintain a balance between entertainment and art,” he said. He also would like to see the establishment of a cooperative valet parking area to free up bagged meters.
His “outward focus” includes a seat on the Columbus Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Council. “His contributions have been significant and positive, especially in areas of public policy, such as sick leave and prevailing wage, that affects his industry,” said Chamber President Ty Marsh, who described Spinelli as a “humanitarian who relates to everybody, from the homeless person to the CEO.”
Not content to stand still, Spinelli is a 2008 graduate of Leadership Columbus, an intensive 10-month training program that nurtures board governance and other forms of community engagement. His class of 55, including many corporate executives, elected Spinelli as one of its three graduation speakers.
In the program, Spinelli visited non-profit social service agencies, ate in soup kitchens and worked on a project that explored issues facing elderly gay men and women in nursing homes. “A lot of people go through this program to build resumes, but I never got that sense from Joe,” said Executive Director Laurie Marsh. “Joe was grateful to see the underbelly of our community and he seemed emotionally moved by each site visit.”
Spinelli took his “outward focus” to an extreme last spring when he moved to Westgate on the West Side after owning two homes in Victorian Village. “One of the hardest things about living in the neighborhood where you work is the absence of downtime,” he said. “I’m turning 40 this year and living in Westgate will give me time to recharge my batteries.” Yet Spinelli vows to remain active in the Short North. “I still have a passion for this place, and always will,” he said.
Spinelli’s Deli, 767 Neil Avenue, Thurber Center, is open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 7 a.m. to
9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, for in-house dining, carryout and catering. Call 614-280-1044 or visit www.spinellisdeli.com for more information.
© 2009 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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