Dining Destinations: 3 neighborhood delis with Metro Detroit stories to tell

Dating back to 18th-century Germany, delicatessens have operated for hundreds of years as hard-and-fast local staples in many countries around the world. Besides providing customers with freshly sliced meats and cheeses, delis have classically offered patrons a familiar spot to chat with neighbors and friends, or a convenient place to stop for a fast, fresh lunch.

So when restauranteur Charles Nolan purchased Hygrade Deli after the original owners retired, manager Fallon Gunn knew that she needed to be fully committed to maintaining the almost 70-year-old Detroit classic just like customers remembered it.

“It was hard and challenging at first,” Gunn says, “but we grew from it and we’re steadily moving forward. We make the brisket fresh every day. Every time, it’s going to taste the same. You’ve got to have that flavor — it’s hard to get corned beef that has that flavor and the balance, but we’ve got it. We’ve got the little magic touch.”

From niche brick-and-mortars with high-end charcuterie to casual joints with a cozy feel, the Motor City hosts many unique local delis that work hard to serve their communities with quality food and intentional hospitality. Here are just a few that call Metro Detroit their home:

Hygrade Deli
3640 Michigan Ave., Detroit // (313) 894-6620 

Established in 1955 on the corner of Roosevelt and Michigan Avenue, Hygrade Deli has welcomed generations of diners through its doors with the promise of home-cooked corned beef and hot, grilled sandwiches made to order. When the deli changed ownership in 2021, food-and-beverage veteran Fallon Gunn stepped in to manage the store. 

“It was a good challenge,” Gunn says. “I’ve been in food service for 22 years, and it’s still a learning experience. At first it was kind of hard, like how do I step into this management position when [the staff] already knows what to do? But they listened and I listened as well. The balance ended up coming.”

Dedicated to their customer service and the scratch-made brisket that first made them a community favorite, the crew at Hygrade’s refer to themselves as “one band, one sound.” Their mission is to preserve the integrity of the deli while nurturing an environment that makes every customer feel warm and welcome.

“Our customers are very special,” Gunn says. “A lot of our customers, they know us by name, and we know them by name. As soon as they come in, we already know what they’re ordering before they’re even sitting down. To have that connection and relationship with our customers, that means so much to us.”

As the historic restaurant edges toward its’ third year under new ownership, Gunn and her staff are reaching back out to the neighborhood that has since welcomed them in. Together, they’ve organized a local trunk-or-treat and regularly collect winter coat donations, with hopes to continue expanding their outreach in the community.

“We take care of one another. We’re there for one another,” Gunn says. “It’s very important to give back to the community because they’re the ones keeping us going. We have to keep that circle going — letting them know that we see them like they see us.”

Breakaway Deli
61 W. Long Lake Rd., Troy // (248) 528-8130 // breakawaydeli.com

When cousins Senan Abdal and Milo Nafsou took over Breakaway Deli in 2004, their vision was to reach diners with a recognizable brand and an affordable, high-quality menu. Now, almost 20 years later, the partners have built a family-centered eatery that has since become a staple in the city they both grew up in.

“That’s one of the things we’re most proud of,” Nafsou says. “My biggest drive is that I want to grow with the community. Our deli has created a nostalgic feeling for a lot of people. It’s become a family thing — our kids come and help us out. So a lot of it for us is more than just the business. It actually is personal.”

The staff at Breakaway prep the majority of their menu items from scratch, down to slicing their bread fresh every morning. Abdal and Nafsou have worked hard to keep their prices low in the face of inflation and rising food costs so that their regulars can have access to healthy food without breaking the bank.

“We’re very conscious about our price point,” Nafsou says. “We try to make things that are affordable but fresh. Everything we do, in the back of our minds we’re just like, ‘Is this something we would serve to our kids? Is this something we would serve to our families?’ We keep that in mind all the time, and that reflects in our pricing too.”

“We’re not out to make a killing,” Abdal confirms. “We’re out to make a living. Troy is a great place to live and to have a business. I really love the city that much. It means a whole lot to me.”

Breakaway’s intentional family emphasis is connected to the cousins’ experience as first-generation Americans from Iraq. As they continue to grow the business, Abdal and Nafsou are often visited by diners who started coming to the restaurant when it originally opened in 1989 — many of whom have since introduced their own families to the deli.

“It’s that thing where kids are coming here after their sporting games and on Saturdays with their families,” Nafsou says. “We’ve literally seen kids that now have their own kids introduce them to Breakaway Deli. It’s become generational. There’s something to be said about that.”

Rocco’s Italian Deli
3627 Cass Ave., Detroit // (313) 315-3003 // roccosdetroit.com

After perceiving a need for specialty Italian products in Detroit, childhood friends Kyle Mrkva and Gabe Guido decided that they were going to do something about it. After initially pitching their business concept at Comerica Hatch Detroit in 2014, the pair partnered with Gabe’s uncle, Jeff Guido, to open Rocco’s Italian Deli four years later.

“We saw a real need for our type of business in the city,” Mrkva says. “It’s hard to get a half-pound of prosciutto sliced to order or a pound of cheese and a sandwich and a bottle of wine all in the same place. And then when it came to the branding and the name, we just wanted to honor the tradition of the family — the entrepreneurial spirit of Gabe and Jeff’s ancestry.”

Jeff Guido, head chef and partner at Roccos chats with general manager Kyle Mrkva.

Rocco’s Deli is named after Gabe’s great-grandfather, Guy Rocco, who was the first of his family to immigrate to the U.S. from Calabria. Later, he became a successful businessman in the city of Detroit. As Mrkva and the Guidos continue his entrepreneurial legacy, the partners are determined to provide excellent experiences for their customers, whether they’re brand-new to the deli or they’ve been a patron since day one.

“We focus on exceeding our customers’ expectations when it comes to not only the food, but also the service and then the overall experience at the deli,” Mkrva says. “So we don’t try to reinvent the wheel too much when it comes to classic, Italian-American sandwiches. We just pay a lot of attention to the details.” 

Besides classic sandwiches, deli service, imported groceries and wine, Rocco’s offers pick-up catering and take-and-bake pasta dinners that patrons can simply heat in the oven. The store also features scratch-made condiments and a rotating dessert menu, overseen by executive chef Jeff Guido and his staff.

I really find fulfillment in having our customers come to me and validate their experience at Rocco’s,” Mrkva says. “I’ve learned the importance of consistency in the business, and also, unexpectedly, how much of a family you can create. That type of thing brings me a lot of joy and warms my heart. It makes me feel good about coming to work; it makes me feel proud of what we’ve created here.”

 All photos by Steve Koss.
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Read more articles by Sierra Okoniewski.

Sierra Okoniewski is a freelance journalist with a passion for good food and intentional hospitality. She lives in Rochester, Michigan, and finds joy in eating her way around the mitten state.