The ranks of sandwich royalty started with the Earl of Sandwich himself. They include the founder of Subway, Fred DeLuca, whose new worth Forbes magazine estimates at $1.5 billion. And the late corned-beef king Abe Lebewohl of the late, laminated Second Avenue Deli.
But New York's sandwich-maker on the make at the moment is Sei Hoon "Lenny" Chu, who has grown a small sandwich shop on Columbus Avenue and West 84th Street into the beginnings of a sandwich empire that now includes 7 Manhattan locations. Mr. Chu and his partners say they are hoping to add 13 new storefronts in Manhattan in the next five years, and they are also considering opening outlets in Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing.
Co-owner Johnny Heil said most people think Lenny is "a 50-year-old Jewish guy from the Upper West Side." But the real creator of the "Novie," - smoked Nova lox with cream cheese, tomato and onion on an H&H Bagel - is Mr. Chu, who arrived in New York from South Korea in 1983 at age 20. Six years later he launched the first Lenny's, aiming, he said, to combine the transparency of a sushi bar, where customers can watch their food being made, with the classic New York Jewish and Italian delis.
Today, the small, well-appointed offices of the Lenny's Group are on the 44th floor of One Penn Plaza, with an expansive view of the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan.
Operating in the New York restaurant business is notoriously difficult, with about 4,000 restaurants opening and closing a year. Statistics kept by the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene show that about 70% of new restaurants close within five years.
Citywide, rising rents have chased out some long-standing restaurants and delicatessens. In January, the Second Avenue Deli, an East Village landmark, closed after more than five decades. Lenny's recently took over a space at East 77th Street and Second Avenue formerly occupied by Stage Deli, a long-time institution on the Upper East Side.
Mr. Chu and his brother, Brian Chu, have spent years tweaking the menu and training sandwich-makers.
"We don't put the tomato touching the bread. It is moist, and it makes the bread soggy, so we first put on shredded lettuce," Sei Hoon Chu said. "We don't put roast beef next to turkey because the turkey becomes red."
Mr. Chu described how sandwiches with oil and vinegar must be packaged to avoid pooling at the bottom of the bag. Some sandwiches are designed with romaine instead of the shredded lettuce because it holds the sauce better.
"Nobody takes five or ten minutes to think about that," he said. "Whether the consumer thinks about that stuff or not, we are trying to be different than the others."
When the conversation turns to the long-term business plan, Mr. Chu defers to his business partners. "I don't know how to run 25 Lenny's. I know how to make a sandwich," said Mr. Chu, who is 42.
Still, he envisions an international expansion, hoping that the Asian consumer's preoccupation with American brands will translate to sandwiches, too.
"When I was growing up, sandwiches were like a snack," Mr. Chu said. "But many people were living here, or studying here, and they miss New York things like sandwiches. Things are changing."
Most Lenny's employees are Latino or Korean Americans, and start as deliverymen. It takes about 18 months to move up from deliveryman to sandwich-maker.
Mr. Chu tells his sandwich-makers in training: "You are not making a sandwich for the customer. The sandwich you are making is for you to eat. You want it to impress your girlfriend."
An assembly line of sandwich makers churn out made-to-order specialties, like the "Lenny's Combo," a hot pastrami and corned beef with Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and Russian dressing. Most sandwiches cost between $6.00 and $7.50.
The popular "Jimmy T", a chicken cutlet with melted mozzarella cheese, grilled onion, sweet peppers, and honey mustard, is named after an Upper West Side detective and frequent customer. Popular on Sunday afternoons among those who had late and raucous Saturday nights is the "H-6", a meatloaf sandwich with melted cheddar cheese, crispy bacon, hot pepper, lettuce, and gravy.
Mr. Chu's partners, Curt Huegel and Johnny Heil, were frequent Lenny's customers. In 1997, they helped the company expand into Midtown. Together they have opened five Manhattan stores. In April they launched a two-story store on West 23rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue - their "Taj Majal." This fall, they will open another near West 4th Street.
"I used to go form 81st Street and York to the Upper West Side to get the chicken salad. That's how you know you want to be in business with someone," Mr. Huegel said.
Around lunchtime in Manhattan, Lenny's is a bustling business. In commercial area locations, such as one next door to Rockefeller Center, a delivery command center in the back oversees the construction and shipment of thousands of sandwiches to customers who eat at their desks. In residential areas, like Lenny's territory on the Upper West Side, the store fills up with baby strollers, firefighters, police officers, and the occasional celebrity.
Mr. Huegel describes Lenny's biggest demographic category of customers as college-educated professionals younger than 40. He said while the company is looking to expand, they'll do it through slow and steady growth.
Neither Mr. Huegel nor Mr. Heil would say how much profit their cold-cut business is generating. "Lenny lives more modestly than people would think," Mr. Heil said.