United Deli owner shrugs off fire

March 13, 2013 10:21:03 AM

Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]


Fans of United Deli were greeted with a comforting taste of the familiar Tuesday as they packed into the popular East Columbus eatery for their lunchtime fill of cheese steaks, muffalettas, gyros and baklava.  


For a while, brothers Abraham, 5, and Isaac, 3, guarded the front door, swinging it open enthusiastically for every new customer, greeting them with shy grins before skittering away, back to the safety of the kitchen, where their mother, Nima, tended the ovens.  


Owner Adel "John" Musa, cloaked in a blue apron, maneuvered his way around outstretched feet, delivering plastic red trays piled high with hefty, two-hand sandwiches.  


It was, by all appearances, business as usual for the combination deli and gas station, which has been a fixture on the corner of Alabama Street and Gardner Boulevard since 2006.  


Few customers noticed the clear sheet of plastic -- the only visible remnant of a weekend fire -- dangling from the roof, blowing gently in the breeze.  


Musa was still cleaning up from the Sunday lunch crowd, serving a few late afternoon stragglers, when he received a phone call around 3:30 p.m. Clarissa Crowell, a cashier at Express Mart on the opposite corner of the street, had looked out her window and noticed what she initially thought was a fire behind the building. 


"It was sparking and there were little mists of smoke," she said Tuesday. "I called him and said, 'John, you might want to look outside.'" 


Where there's smoke there's fire.  


Seeing flames shooting from the right, rear corner of the roof, Musa quickly evacuated the building and called the fire department, snapping a few pictures with his cell phone while he waited.  


Columbus Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Bobby Barksdale, along with engine 24 from Station 4, engine 25 from Station 5 and engine 30 from Station 1 responded. An afternoon storm had caused a piece of tin to peel up, striking a power line and sending a shower of sparks onto the roof, causing it to catch on fire, Battalion Chief Mark Ward said Tuesday.  


Within two hours, the restaurant was back in business -- a testimony to the fire department's quick response, Musa said. In 2005, shortly before he purchased the building, it caught on fire and had to be completely rebuilt.  


"We're lucky, you know, we got everybody out," Musa said, taking a break between customers while keeping a watchful eye on Abraham and Isaac. "We've gotten a lot of calls from people who think the kitchen caught on fire." 


Musa, a native of Yemen, arrived in the United States in 1992, beginning his culinary career in his uncle's Tacoma, Wash. deli before moving to Memphis and working for a deli there. He operated an eatery in Brooksville before moving to his current location in February 2006.  


The fire could have been worse, he acknowledges. Instead, it has made him realize just how much his business -- and his family -- has come to mean to the community.  


"I got support from my people, so it was OK," he said. "A lot of people said they would support me. I'm grateful to my customers and the fire department." 


He is also grateful for Crowell's phone call, which he said probably averted more extensive damage.  


As for Crowell, she's glad, too. She often takes her lunch break at United Deli, especially on Sundays, and she has grown fond of the gyros and cheeseburgers.  


She has also grown attached to Musa and his family.  


"I like John," she said. "He's a nice, respectable man, and I like him a lot."

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.