For 30 years, Greek Deli owner Kostas Fostieris has begun his workday at 3 AM—a Monday-through-Friday routine he’s held since 1989. In a city where restaurants seem to open and close every week, the Greek native’s downtown lunch counter (1120 19th St., NW) has earned its reputation as a DC institution.
In the hour we spent talking with Fostieris, half a dozen people pop in to ask if he’d sold out of this or that. Addressing them all by first name, Fostieris smiles and says, “Sorry, try tomorrow!” By 3 PM, the daily lunch line has dwindled and the kitchen has long since run out of avgolemono soup and baked pastitsio pasta. A regular calls and frantically explains how she needs a last-minute catering order. “For you, okay,” Fostieris says. His landlord strolls past and pauses to say hello.
“Oh, Kostas,” he says, nodding in our direction. “He’s an institution.”
And an anomaly in today’s dining scene. In its 30 years, Fostieris has never expanded—the Greek Deli isn’t even open on weekends. It only boasts a handful of outdoor seats, and doesn’t subscribe to any trendy delivery apps. But day in and day out, its lengthy lunch lines and devoted regulars prove the deli is going strong.
We sat down with Fostieris to talk about three decades of hard work, success, and changes.
What have you seen changed, and what’s stayed the same?
When I first started 30 years ago, everything on this block was a restaurant. That frame store down the block? That was a restaurant. Luigis? Restaurant. So many places over the years, they’ve opened and they’ve closed and now all I see is construction. But me? I’ve stayed the same. When I opened the space was a little smaller, we added an oven, two ovens, we got a little more room, nothing too big. I wish I had more tables sometimes, but that’s wishful thinking.
If so many places have come and gone, why have you stayed? And what’s the secret to your success?
First of all, I like to think my customers love me. You know how friendly I am. Competition will try to call me “The Soup Nazi” because I try to keep a straight line when it gets busy. It doesn’t bother me because my customers know that my heart is very soft. They see me every day and I’m never going to be here standing stiff in a suit and tie. I think people like that. I ask them about their day, I ask them about their kids, and I get to know who eats my food.
Three weeks ago I went to an Italian restaurant close to my house. I ordered a salad and they asked how I would like the dressing. I said olive oil, and they gave me soybean oil. Soybean! I called the manager and he had the guts to say to me that it was olive oil! You don’t spend 45 years in the restaurant business without knowing olive oil. This is why restaurants don’t stay. This is the difference, and it’s how you stay here a long time.
What about your menu? Is anything new?
I would say a few things. There’s really no comparing it to how I started. I started this deli serving meatballs and pita, and now every day I have different specials. This space is so small that every morning I need to get a fresh food delivery and I do my specials around what we get. And I’m picky. This week I didn’t like the look of the pork, so we didn’t do pork. All of the plates we serve with orzo and vegetables. I say vegetables because sometimes after 1 o’clock I run out of string beans so I need to think on my feet, I need to do something different, so I work with what I have left. I never, ever have any leftovers.
Please tell us about the fresh bread—we’re addicted.
Let me tell you, and you need to remember this, okay? At the time I first opened, it was slow. It was just me, my wife, and another lady. So one day, it was raining very heavily, and back then I used to use pita bread. So the day it was raining, with nothing to do, I had flour, yeast, and I took a small bowl and I made bread the way I grew up in Greece, the way my mother used to do it every day. I did five small loaves. I had maybe twenty customers say to me, “Kosta!! Where do you buy this bread? Will you have this tomorrow? Kosta!” So, the next day I started to do seven loaves. Then I did eight. Then ladies would come in and say “Kosta, I need one loaf of bread for my house.” And now I do 100 loaves a day. This bread is natural—a little olive oil, a little water, very very light salt, and then I use my hands. There is no machine or softener. My bread is good just for today. If you take it home, tomorrow morning you will have a football to play with.
Do you still have the same customers from when you first started?
Believe it or not, I can recognize 500 customers, minimum. One couple came in today at around 2:30, I saw their daughter. They said, “Kosta! You remember my daughter? She’s 21 years old now! She used to come here at age 5, 6.” Things like that happen every day.
Greek Deli & Catering, 1120 19th St. NW
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.