Leonard B. “Lenny”Smith, who went from a career in insurance and automobile financing to selling corned beef, pastrami sandwiches and other Jewish delicacies at an Owings Mill delicatessen that bears his name, died Oct. 18 from sepsis at Northwest Hospital in Randallstown. The Pikesville resident was 88.
“Mr. Lenny was a classic all-around hardworking guy and so hardworking for his age,” said chef Shirley J. Royal, who has been at the Owings Mills deli for 26 years.
“When I arrived in the morning, he was already here cutting bread and fixing coffee. You never saw him lying around in the office. He worked continually and never sat down,” Ms. Royal said. “He was an easygoing and even-tempered guy whose favorite line was ‘I woke up this morning.’ "
Leonard Bernard Smith, the son of Harry Smith, who owned a general store, and his wife, Anna Smith, a homemaker, was born and raised in Northwest Baltimore.
After graduating in 1949 from City College, Mr. Smith established Len’s Variety Store at the intersection of Aisquith and Orleans streets in East Baltimore, selling penny candy, snowballs and popcorn. He also had a sideline of selling insurance.
Mr. Smith began selling insurance full-time when he joined the staff of People’s Life Insurance. His off days from the insurance company were Fridays and Saturdays, when he had a second job as a deli counterman at Frankfort Grocery.
In 1965, he joined Harry Gladding Chevrolet in Glen Burnie, where he was finance and insurance manager, until 1985, when he and his son, Alan Smith, established Lenny’s Deli in the Valley Village Shopping Center in Owings Mills, billing itself as a New York-style deli.
They later expanded to Lombard Street’s once-famous Corned Beef Row in 1991, when they took over the store that had been Jack’s Corned Beef of Lombard Street, and operated the deli there until closing it in 2017. A Lenny’s Deli opened in 2014 in the Horseshoe Casino.
If his son was the business face of the deli, Mr. Smith was the face of the deli itself: His visage adorned the drinking cups and appeared on all signage.
Darren Dorsey, one of the managers, worked with Mr. Smith for 21 years.
“He’s a wonderful man and I’m not just saying that because I work here but because it’s true. Everything about him was great,” Mr. Dorsey said. “He was an honest and fair man and we laughed and joked together. He was in the same mood everyday and during my 21 years here, I never heard him raise his voice."
He praised Mr. Smith’s work ethic.
“I’d come in at 5 a.m. and everything was done. He’d been here since 3:30 or 4, and I wondered, ‘What am I doing here?’ ” he said with a laugh. “Lenny worked long days — 11 hours — and would finally go home at 2 or 3 in the afternoon.”
David H. Rochlin of Owings Mills has been a customer for more than 30 years and a member of a regular band of eight who breakfast there every morning.
“Lenny would sit with us at breakfast — it’s like a family here — and we talked about sports, politics and simply everything, Lenny was so easygoing and was always smiling,” Mr. Rochlin said. “My favorite thing in the morning is a bacon, egg and cheese on a bagel. I never had to order it, they’d see me coming and get it ready.”
“He’d sit in the dining room with the regulars drinking coffee and solving the world’s problems in 20 minutes,” his son said.
In 2001, Mr. Smith retired and moved to Boynton Beach, Florida, returning to Pikesville in 2013 when he settled into a condominium at 11 Slade Ave. and resumed his daily visits to the deli.
“We were in the very same business and if we ran out and needed something, we’d borrow from each other. We’d find a way to help," said Marc Attman, current owner of Attman’s Delicatessen on Corned Beef Row.
“Lenny was a good guy and a straight-shooter, and his son Alan is a good man, too,” he said. “I wish they were back on Lombard Street, because if they were, there’d be more action,” Mr. Attman said, adding that his father had been Mr. Smith’s neighbor and good friend.
Mr. Smith’s death resulted in a feature article in The Jerusalem Post.
“For those who live in the Baltimore area, Lenny’s Deli is synonymous with great breakfast food, deli meats and possibly the best corned beef around,” wrote reporter Zachary Keyser. “The restaurant itself holds a nostalgic place in the hearts of many Baltimoreans, becoming a tradition in may households to meet up at the famous casual dining spot for breakfast, lunch or dinner — and known well for their devotion to catering to the community in more ways than one.”
Mr. Keyser added: “When you see the familiar face of Smith stamped on the dinner plate after a Yom Kippur fast. you already know you will be in a food coma by night’s end.”
“The pastrami and Swiss on rye is a solid build, with tender, peppery meat, thinly sliced and thickly stacked,” a Baltimore Sun food critic wrote in 2011. “You can guide the creation of these sandwiches, and we specified Swiss as the cheese of choice. Lenny’s delivered its melted glory in abundance. Along with the rye bread, this was a well-balanced and filling sandwich.”
While praising its famed Reuben and comparing its quality to the pastrami and Swiss, the critic advised the "kraut and Russian dressing made it challengingly sloppy and, therefore, more fun. You may be tempted to use a knife and fork.”
In addition to enjoying family gatherings, Mr. Smith attended a grandson’s wedding in California two weeks before his death. He was an inveterate Baltimore Colts, Ravens, Orioles and Maryland’s men’s and women’s basketball fan. He also liked to golf.
Mr. Smith was a congregant of Beth Tfiloh Congregation.
Funeral services for Mr. Smith were held Oct. 20 at Sol Levinson & Bros. Inc. in Pikesville.
JMore Baltimore Jewish Living reported on Oct. 23 that “mourners leaving the procession honked their horns as they passed by the famous deli on their way to the cemetery as a final tribute to Smith’s legacy.”
In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife of 31 years, the former Carolyn Moscoe; another son, Harris Smith of Los Angeles; a daughter, Sharon Freiman of Pikesville; two stepsons, Michael Glasser of Rockville and Jason Glasser of New York City; 11 grandchildren; and three great grandchildren. His first wife of 31 years, the former Ilene Cohen, died in 1983.