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DC's Iconic Howard Deli Closes Due To COVID-19

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Businesses and restaurants all across the country have had to shut down. Some will survive this pandemic, but others will not. Howard Deli, beloved by loyal patrons at neighboring Howard University - that's a historically Black college here in Washington, D.C. - is one that won't be back. Longtime customer James Moore already misses its breakfast sandwiches, coffee and its sweet iced tea.

JAMES MOORE: Howard Deli to me is a landmark on the upper part of Georgia Avenue. And they've been there for years. It was a family-owned business.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Not just years - almost a century. The store was opened in 1924 by Mary and Frank Guerra. It was later run by their children. Brothers Kenny Gilmore and Darryl Diaz, who goes by Pepe, lived nearby and started working at the deli as kids. The families had a close relationship that lasted decades. Then in 1988, when the Guerra children retired, they handed the keys over to Gilmore and Diaz.

PEPE DIAZ: And the Howard students would love the meatball subs, our famous barbecue. And they would love that ghetto sweet iced tea that my brother used to make. Yeah, they - yeah, you mention that all around 'cause we use actual tea bags, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Pepe Diaz. He says his brother, not the iced tea, was the real star of Howard Deli.

DIAZ: If any of the students had a problem or needed to know something, especially about history of anything, they would come to Kenny. He would tell them. And he was well known in the community. And if anybody was - you know, didn't have money and needed something to eat, he would say, you know, always, you know, make something for them to eat. Don't turn them away. And it was like that. He was a mainstay in the community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last November, Kenny Gilmore suffered a massive stroke. He's now at an assisted living facility. And without their regular customers, students or faculty, it just became too much, Pepe Diaz says.

DIAZ: And so with the uncertainty of, you know, the students coming back and the workers coming back over Howard and Banneker senior high school, it was just kind of tough, you know, keeping the business going 'cause the business was going down.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After running the deli and being a part of the Howard community for generations, Pepe Diaz feels the loss deeply.

DIAZ: Howard University - the students used to be lined up. You could hear them talking on their cellphone while they were in the line. Where you at? Oh, I'm at the deli getting my sandwich, my breakfast. It was nice. I miss those days. I miss seeing all the customers. You know, the students really kept us young. You know, they kept us up to date with everything.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Customer James Moore grew up with Diaz and Gilmore. He says it will be hard to find a better breakfast than his bacon and egg sandwich he enjoyed nearly every morning.

MOORE: It just was a festive place. You know, and I like to say people come there - the food was good, but the conversation was even better.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nearly a hundred years of food and friendship. We wish Kenny and Pepe and their loyal customers well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.