Sam Lerner could make a good case that the deli is like a synagogue, a house of gathering for Jews. If so, he’s the rabbi of Attman’s Deli in Park Potomac. He’s the man behind the platters at brit milahs and shivas. He moves through the busy restaurant like a deli sage.
“My synagogue is Attman’s Deli,” says the 70-year-old Rockville resident, who has been in the business since he was 15.
With Chanukah imminent, Lerner, whose formal title is general manager, is gearing up for a rush on latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts).
Just about everything is made from scratch, he says.
“We make latkes in batches of 500 to 1,000,” he says. “The staff spends two to three hours peeling and grating.”
Before he sold his Potomac Village Deli to Attman’s five years ago and joined the Baltimore-based restaurant business, Lerner was a walking advertisement for his own deli.
“Back when people wrote checks, we’d get checks made out to Sam’s Deli,” he says.
Born in Baltimore, Lerner says he was raised on Attman’s corned beef. But he’s long been associated with Potomac and environs. His barely filled out and long-forgotten LinkedIn account says he’s been doing his job for 47 years and 11 months.
It was February 1975, in fact, when he became “Sam’s Deli.” He never got tired of the work — or the food, which Wikipedia describes as “Ashkenazi staples.”
“I like this type of cuisine. I love our customers. They like quality, and they’re willing to pay for quality,” he says.
Lerner talks about slicing lox like an artisan. He tells about the time Attman’s received a case of turkey breasts when they had ordered a case of root beer. “Everything’s computers today,” he says.
Attman’s in Potomac has won in numerous categories in Washington Jewish Week’s 2022 “Best of Jewish Washington” competition: Best Jewish Deli, Best Restaurant and Best Brunch. They were runner-up for Best Caterer and Best Coffee.
Attman’s owner, Mark Attman, says he considers the business, with its menu anchored in Jewish tradition, part of the Jewish community. “The most important thing to do is to maintain our Jewish identity,” he says. For Chanukah, “if you need a dreidel or some gelt or latkes — that’s who we are.”
As big as Chanukah is, Lerner says the biggest day, just like in every synagogue, is Yom Kippur — 2,000 customers. The deli needs a tractor trailer to hold all those break-the-fast platters.
“When Jewish people fast for 24 hours, they’re going to go nuts afterward,” he says.
When there are orders to deliver, drivers go out in trucks named for the Three Stooges. “We have Moe, Curly and Curly Joe,” Lerner says. “We lost Larry.”
Like the Stooges, the names of the trucks have changed over time. For a while, they had so many trucks that they ran out of Stooges. So the fleet included a truck named Groucho.
The pandemic changed the business, he says. Near the registers, a refrigerated case is filled with “grab and go” items. Customers are in a bigger hurry now, he says; they don’t want to watch you cut the corned beef or smoked fish. And the less handling, the better.
Even more changes are coming, Lerner believes: “In order to survive, a deli has to have a sizeable Jewish population that’s 50 and over.”
Sure, corned beef will remain a favorite. And matzah-ball soup. But take the tongue test. Would you eat it? Would you order herring, kasha or kishka? Even gefilte fish isn’t conveying to a younger generation.
But we’re not there yet. And on this day, nearly Chanukah, Sam Lerner has been in the business long enough to have an answer to a rookie question like: Do you eat applesauce or sour cream on your latkes?
“If I’m eating four latkes,” he says, “I use half applesauce and half sour cream.”