Stephanie Hockaday likes her corned beef sandwiches from Lenny’s Delicatessen served on white bread with grilled onions, provolone cheese, mayonnaise and mustard — just how she got one for lunch on Wednesday. The 33-year-old has been coming to the Lombard Street deli as long as she can remember, but this would be one of her last visits.
After 26 years, the Corned Beef Row stalwart will close its doors for good on Saturday and hand its lease over to the Helping Up Mission, a nearby organization that serves men struggling with addiction, poverty and homelessness.
Lenny’s owner Alan Smith said he felt it was the right time to close the shop to focus on other locations in Owings Mills and at the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore. Lenny’s departure means one less deli on the Lombard Street corridor, once a bustling center of Jewish life. Attman’s and Weiss delis will become Corned Beef Row’s last holdouts.
“It’s a good reason to leave, and we had been considering it anyway,” said Smith, who bought the deli after working at its predecessor, Jack’s Corned Beef. “Business has dwindled over the years.”
The Helping Up Mission’s building at 1029 E. Baltimore St. is undergoing a $2.6 million renovation to update its kitchen and dining hall. During construction from July to November, the group will use Lenny’s building to feed the 500 men the program serves.
A short-term lease there was a cheaper alternative to setting up a mobile mess hall on the Helping Up Mission’s parking lot — the original plan.
“We provide 1,200 meals daily, and so we have to keep that going,” said Helping Up Mission executive director Robert Gehman. “We’re going to miss Lenny’s, but we’re really thrilled that they were willing to help us out.”
The Jewish Museum of Maryland owns the building, and executive director Marvin Pinkert said plans for the space are not yet determined beyond its use by the Helping Up Mission.
He said doesn’t see Lenny’s closure as part of a sea change in the neighborhood. In the early 20th century, Lombard Street was lined with shops and stalls selling meats, produce and myriad Jewish specialties. Pinkert pointed to the riots of 1968 as the beginning of the neighborhood’s decline and said the future of Corned Beef Row hedges on more than its namesake food.
“It never was just corned beef. The neighborhood didn’t survive on pickled meat,” but rather on the spirit of its small businesses, said Pinkert, who helped craft a master plan for the neighborhood.
He’s encouraged by developments on East Baltimore Street — where new apartments, retail and offices are planned — and said development on Lombard Street is likely to follow.
Attman’s owner Marc Attman wasn’t as optimistic. He said it’s unsettling to see a similar business close.
“We hate to lose a fellow delicatessen there, and we’ve been partners in the delicatessen world,” said Attman, whose family opened the deli in 1915. “It’s all business, but people like to have choices, and everyone has their own favorite. And when a favorite goes away, to some, it’s not good.”
Longtime customers were also sorry to hear Lenny’s was closing. Brad Lewis, 60, of Kent Island, has been coming since about 1978 for fried chicken, corned beef, and ham and cheese sandwiches.
Before Lenny’s, he went to Weiss across the street.
“I’ll probably just go back there,” Lewis said. “But I don’t think they have fried chicken.”
Curtis Gribble, 56, a heating and air conditioning mechanic with Central Tech Services, recalled stopping at Lenny’s (then Jack’s) as a child on his way to see the Harlem Globe Trotters or the circus downtown, or on his way from his childhood home in Dundalk to visit an aunt in South Baltimore.
“I remember this place being so packed you couldn’t find a place to sit down — even downstairs, too,” he said.
Now, Lenny’s doesn’t use its downstairs, and less than half its tables were full during Wednesday’s lunch rush.
Although the deli will soon serve its last sandwich, Pinkert said the character of small businesses like it will sustain Lombard Street going forward.
“The spirit of what animated Corned Beef Row will remain,” he said, “even while the individual businesses in some cases may move on.”