When Justin Gober and Joseph Hoskin found themselves at the helm of the Diplomat Deli in 2016, it wasn’t broken, and it didn’t need fixing. Its then-owners were on the cusp of retirement and needed someone to pick up the check.
The deli has changed hands several times since opening in 1982, but over the years, its eclectic charm has engendered an immutable identity. “There are not many places like this left. We’re two different stores in one. We’re a beer and wine shop. And we’re a restaurant,” Hoskin explains.
Its relatively new owners have sworn to preserve the bodega-deli hybrid. For 36 years, the deli has consistently served the same sandwiches, sliced the same way, by many of the same folks. “Working in the business is hard, but fortunately enough, we cheated and bought a restaurant that already had the best employees in the world. Everyone was cool with staying and hanging out with us,” a grateful Hoskin acknowledges.
Ms. Teresa Boone, the head server, has been dishing out the deli’s Reubens for 15 years, and Felix Cruz, the general manager, has demonstrated his loyalty for about a decade. Every week, the humble staff of 15 contends with the high expectations of a few hundred regulars. “We have a lot of folks who come in here four days a week, and most of them have been coming here for 30 years and have only had one thing,” Hoskin says.
As former customers who grew up nearby, Gober and Hoskin empathize with their longtime regulars’ resistance to change…to a point. “Clock Lady,” a “very sweet” regular patron, earned her nickname for relentlessly giving the pair grief over the store clock’s relocation to an adjacent wall. Although they haven’t backed down from their décor decisions, they’ve still managed to quell the suspicions of even the most stubborn customers, including Clock Lady.
“I’d be afraid to take the carpet out, as much as it drives me crazy. People like it how it is. (It) doesn’t matter what I think. I’m just paying the bills,” Gober says, likely fearful of retaliation. The vintage coolers may need repairs, and at some point, the building will require an update. But the staples that regulars have been savoring since ’82, like the Reuben and the “World’s Best” Chili, aren’t going anywhere. The Diplomat dudes have already cooked up several new menu items, including a Buffalo Chicken Sandwich and a Greek Salad.
They have also ushered in couple of recurring evening events, a boon to Greater Birminghamians who aren’t keen on leaving the little ones behind. “My wife and I have two kids, so we always look for a place where we can go that’s not a bar where some guy is falling off his stool, cursing loudly,” Hoskin notes.
In Diplomat Deli, Hoskin found the perfect opportunity for tapping into that market of fun-loving families. Two years ago, the pair launched Wednesday trivia nights and Friday patio parties, which both draw a packed house of young families, professionals, and old-timers. “There are definitely times when we’re outnumbered by 8-year-olds. They’re a strong force,” Gober says.
Much to the owners’ relief, veteran Dippers are unfazed, especially as much has remained the same. Over the past 36 years, the deli’s caretakers have perfected the art of converting first-timers into regulars, through a commitment to quality and consistency. The Long Island Sub tastes just like it did three decades ago, and the beverage selection remains unparalleled, at least in town.
The Diplomat is one of the few, if only, Birmingham-area restaurants that offers over 200 varieties of both beer and wine. In their respective realms of expertise, both Gober and Hoskin ensure customer input is reflected in the ever-evolving beer and wine selections.
“We special-order certain wines and beers every day. Justin buys all the wine, I buy all the beer. And everything else, we just split up,” Hoskin reveals.
Not a wine goes up on the shelf that Gober hasn’t tasted and given his seal of approval. The same goes for Hoskin, who personally stocks the deli’s impressive beer cooler, which nearly spans the length of the store. “We added a big draft system of beers from all the local breweries, taking it from six to 16 taps,” Gober boasts.
Bolstered by the community’s unwavering devotion, the Diplomat Deli will remain focused on legacy, if its current owners have anything to say about it. “If we can do this for 30 years and find two suckers to sell it to, that’s the American dream!” Hoskin exclaims.
While the duo is only two years in, they’re already tinkering with the idea of expanding the Diplomat Deli brand to another location, or even a food truck. “We just wanna keep gas in this tank and keep this train rolling on the track. However, I don’t think either of us wants to be standing behind just that cash register for the rest of our lives,” Hoskin divulges.
Sometime within the next few years, Hoskin and Gober hope the deli’s devotees will be getting to the Dip…somewhere else.
Trivia with Reed Lochamy of Birmingham Mountain Radio
Every other Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
Beer specials and prizes
Friday Patio Party
Most every Friday from 5:30–7:30 p.m.
Your Next Event
Deli trays and box lunches for all your catering and corporate needs