The Cavalier Daily
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New York state of mind keeps deli open 24 hours

"I've got a Wild Turkey. Wild Turkey. Who ordered the Wild Turkey?" he yells from behind the cash register. Wearing a black polo shirt and neat khakis, surrounded by six bottles of condiments and endless plastic utensils, he blends in with the other employees. He takes money from one customer as he rings up the next, creating a system that moves like clockwork to satisfy the hungry lunch crowd. After 24 years as Littlejohn's owner and manager, it's no wonder John Crafaik has the sandwich business down to an art.

Over the years, customers have come to expect exceptional service from the 24-hour New York deli on the Corner. The service is not only fast, but fun. Long-time employees such as late-night manager Frank Wells are known among students and townspeople for crazy antics. Wells refuses to hand change back to anyone, but instead flips each customer coins in return. Crafaik said he hopes to keep things this way.

"We try to be personable and have a little bit of fun without crossing the line. We try to know our customers. You have to play around to keep your sanity," he said.

But things haven't always been fun and games for the "semi-retired" owner Crafaik, a Connecticut native who graduated from the University in 1967. Faced with a variety of opportunities, he considered taking the stable route into the corporate world.

"I applied to places like Ford Co., but then I saw the employee manual that was four inches thick, and I said 'No way.'". He leans back in the wooden chair next to the restaurant's front window, where the black and red letters behind him serve as testimony to his career decision.

Crafaik's father owned several Lucky 7 stores in Charlottesville, and he decided to go into business with his father for a few years after graduation. The family partnership didn't last long before Crafaik bought some of his father's food marts.

"We're Polish so we both thought we were right. We always had two solutions to the same problem," Crafaik said. "I'm also not politically correct, but I figure I can get away with anything in a New York deli," he joked.

With the beginning of his financial independence, Crafaik looked to the Corner as his location of choice. He opened the Lucky 7 shop there in 1973, and two years later bought out University Market, an "old-fashioned, high priced" store that used to occupy the Littlejohn's property.

"I had a degree in economics, so I thought I was smart," he said. "If anyone was going to sell food on the Corner, it ought to be me."

In 1976 there was no sandwich shop on the Corner, let alone very many student-oriented restaurants. Crafaik said it seemed as though roughly 70 percent of the student population came from out of state at the time, with large representation from the states of New York, New Jersey and Maryland.

"These guys knew delis," Crafaik said. He saw a New York style deli as the best addition to the Corner business district.

During the first few months of operation, Littlejohn's doors were open for both lunch and dinner crowds. Employees would come in at 8 a.m. to start preparing for the 11 a.m. opening lunch, and the other shift wouldn't leave until 2 a.m., three hours after the restaurant closed. With only six hours each day when no one was in the restaurant, Crafaik figured extending the hours to an all-day establishment wouldn't be a big deal.

"Students are all-night people, so I knew we wouldn't have any trouble getting business," he said.

While the late night shift has been lucrative, especially on busy weekend nights, Crafaik admits this shift has presented the most problems over the years.

"It's terrible staffing the late night shift," he said.

Crafaik acknowledged that some of his employees could be classified as eccentric, and attributed this to the fact that the managers on the Corner tend to be more free thinkers. "We're not at the mall because we like the independent thinking of this area." Thanks to this "independent thinking" the late night crew has come in all shapes and sizes.

"One time we hired a transvestite for the late shift," Crafaik said. "I hired a man, and the next day a beautiful woman walked in for work. I couldn't figure out where she came from."

The late night crew grew by one member six years ago when Crafaik added a security guard to the ranks. At the time, the Corner district faced some safety issues, and Crafaik said he considered the guard a means of preventing problems. Peace of mind comes with a price, in this case $1,000 per month. Since things seem to have quieted down in the area, Crafaik said he is considering returning to the way things were without an officer on duty.

Whatever decision Crafaik makes, he hopes it will most likely work out for the best, just as it has for the past 24 years.

The confidence Crafaik exudes as he relaxes on a quiet Monday afternoon reflects the attitude that has allowed him to maintain a restaurant under a single ownership longer than any other restaurant in Charlottesville. As he pointed out different aspects of the restaurant, it became apparent that Crafaik is truly king of the hill.

"This is sort of the tip of the iceberg," Crafaik said as he motioned around the main-floor of the establishment. The downstairs, equal in size to the main floor, offers among other things, two giant walk-in coolers and freezers as well as a huge dry storage area where all the supplies are tucked away in bulk quantities.

But Crafaik utilizes all this space because he takes his supplies seriously.

"Our food costs are a higher percentage of our sales because we put more quality into our selection," Crafaik said. "We try to give good service and a good product at a good price. We're not trying to fool anyone."

The food business expanded to a third generation of Crafaik men when Crafaik's oldest son Michael opened Michael's Bistro above his father's sandwich shop after graduating from the University in 1992. Though the family's entrepreneurial interests seem to fall into the same category, Crafaik refuses to speculate about the future careers of his other two sons, ages 13 and 10.

Maybe they'll follow the route of their father's most recent business ventures in the realm of real estate. Crafaik currently owns 15 student rental houses, and next year will expand his holdings with a new 120-bedroom apartment complex on Jefferson Park Avenue.

"People say I'm crazy, but I remember that when I was a student I would've loved to live like that," Crafaik said. "You have to have fun sometime, and now is the time to do it."

While real estate offers a new frontier for this business-savvy man, the restaurant business appears to be his forte. Crafaik's self-proclaimed success on the job can be attributed to the tight ship he runs.

"I look at my restaurant as the Super Bowl," Crafaik said. "We have to have the best players without putting more players on the field. And I'm the coach of the team"


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