After Vince Valenza visited New Orleans, he was enthralled with how the city's music and varied cultures were so intertwined. A semi-retired musician, he had always wanted to work in food service. He also wanted to bring that energy--and those melodies--to his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.

Today, his Blues City Deli is both a sandwich shop and a music venue. The unexpected combination pays homage to Valenza's Italian roots and passion for both food and music. And customers--sometimes 1,000 per day during busy times--love it. Revenue grew nearly eight times between 2004 and today--a rate that surpassed Valenza's expectations.

However, as important as revenue is, Valenza values the role the eatery plays in the community just as much. Blues City Deli brings people together, including Valenza and his three sons, who all work full-time at the business. Here, Valenza shares his best business advice and most impactful lessons learned from living out his dream.

What fuels your impressive growth? Can you boil it down to a few words?

Consistency, quality, and excellent service, all at a reasonable cost.

What do you love--and not love about running a business?

Let's start with my least favorite. There is not enough time in the day to get everything finished. It is hard to wear so many different hats and to give everything the attention it needs. My favorite thing is that I get to do what I love. This is my passion. It is more than just a job. Sometimes you have to do "just a job" to pay the bills. I respect that, but I feel very grateful and blessed to get to do what I love. 

Isn't blues music unexpected in an Italian deli?

People think of blues music as being sad, but the blues is more a story of life. There are some funny and uplifting lyrics--it is not all downtrodden. It is more like, "This is life." Regulars keep coming back for that music and for the food. New customers and tourists are always coming through. We have watched friendships, romances, and even marriages form here. It is a blessing to see that, and to work with my sons.

What is your best piece of advice for small business owners?

Running a business is hard work. For it to succeed, you have to love it. Follow your passion. Additionally, have the self-discipline to keep things as simple as possible. Start with a business that is small enough for you to manage effectively and grow it slowly, in a way you can sustain.

What is next for the business?

My son, Joey, has a natural talent for dough and breads. In 2015, we converted a small garage and patio in the back into a pizza kitchen named Melo's Pizzeria. It is Joey's passion project. We want to expand that. My sons and I have a few different ideas for how it could unfold.  

Did you ever imagine Blues City Deli would be as successful as it is today?

Never! This is way beyond my expectations. We didn't really have expectations. It was as if someone tapped me on my shoulder and said, "You have to do this." I never imagined we would be what we are today.

A deli with live blues music sounds a bit offbeat, but for Valenza and his growing community of customers, it feels just right.

Published on: Aug 9, 2018