One time at a fancy embassy party, someone came up to Ben Wagshal and said: "I didn't know you without the counter in front of you."
For the last half century, the 78-year-old Wagshal and his wife, Lillian, 76, have been the folks behind the counter. Delimeisters to presidents and the Northwest gentry, they are retiring after selling truckloads of corned beef and buckets of baklava from their Spring Valley location.
While the store will continue to operate under new owners, the legendary Wagshals, who sold their deli last week, will be gone within three months.
"It is very sad for us to leave our little store," said Wagshal, hustling up and down the aisles, meeting and greeting customers like an old pol. And why not -- this is the man who has sold George Bush his bagels.
Wagshal's, a monument to cholesterol, is probably the oldest family-owned delicatessen in Washington and proof that one way to a neighborhood's heart is through its stomach.
The Wagshals, married even longer than they have been at the store, are probably the only sandwich makers who have been to the White House numerous times. Presidential families from the Kennedys to the Bushs have been customers, along with secretaries, senators and ambassadors. They are all there in pictures tacked haphazardly on the walls of the store, especially George and Barbara Bush.
In fact, President Bush, who comes in from time to time, won't even use the presidential prerogative of calling an order in to get out of waiting in the often long lines at the checkout counter. "He told me the waiting in lines was part of the charm of the place," Wagshal said.
Wagshal's was founded by Ben's father, Sam, in 1938. The first day's receipts totaled $27. Ben, who has a law degree, came on as a clerk for $15 a week. Today the store sells $40,000 worth of food and liquor a week.
Wagshal said the store has been profitable since day one. "There really has not been that much competition," said Lillian Wagshal. "We were not just selling food, you see, it was a labor of love."
The small store, only 1,620 square feet, always seems to be bustling, and on Saturdays and Sundays, it seems nearly all of Spring Valley shows up. Ben Wagshal calls the regulars and the kids (whom he gives free cookies) by name. Favorites? The hand-sliced smoked salmon. Fresh roast beef. Real roasted turkey. The people around here often use words like "divine" and "simply marvelous" -- as in the chicken and shrimp salad.
They certainly don't come for the fancy decor. The place has some faux-wood paneling, nondescript carpeting, faded old posters stuck with bits of yellowing tape on the walls.
The Wagshals were ready to keep on being culinary touchstones, but none of their three sons -- two doctors, one lawyer -- wanted to take over any time soon. When they got the offer last year from Bernard Socha and William Fuchs, two young men from Northern Virginia looking for a good business to settle into, they decided to sell and relax a little.
To many of the customers, hearing about the Wagshals leaving is akin to telling them that their childhood home has just been bulldozed for a new development.
As for Ben Wagshal, he will miss his customers, none of whom -- even presidents -- he thinks are more important than the next.
"It is nice to have President Bush come in here and tell me he loves my stuff," said Ben, leaning in to whisper. "But, I gotta tell you, getting all those thank-you notes from him, I can't keep up... ."