It’s 2 p.m. on the last Wednesday of the year and about a dozen young men and women file into Wendy’s Deli on Sound Avenue in Mattituck for a sandwich.
It’s the day after one young woman’s 21st birthday and the party’s still going.
But nobody needed to tell deli owner Wendy Zuhoski that. As soon as the young woman walked in, Wendy greeted her with a friendly “happy birthday.”
After nearly 24 years in business — just about half her life — there isn’t much Wendy (it would feel funny calling her Ms. Zuhoski for this story) doesn’t know about the Mattituck community.
“These are my people,” the lifelong hamlet resident said.
And she loves them, her employees note.
“For Wendy, this place has always been more family than business,” said longtime staffer Cathy Kingdon.
For her love of her community, her generosity and the way she has grown her business for more than two decades, Wendy Zuhoski is The Suffolk Times’ 2015 Businessperson of the Year.
Wendy was just 23 years old when she took over the former Sound Avenue Deli, renaming it Wendy’s Sound Avenue Deli for a time. She had worked there for about a year when the former landlord of the property asked if she’d be interested in taking over the business.
Delis are what she’s always known. The daughter of a correction officer, she comes from a North Fork farm family, so hard work is in the blood. In fact, she started in the business at age 13, working at the former Skip’s Deli on Main Road.
And though the early mornings and long days can catch up with a person after a while, she says she still enjoys coming to work each day at her own deli just around the block from her childhood home.
“I was given a chance to own this business and I took it,” she said. “I’m a people person and I have such a good customer base. I always kind of knew I could handle it.”
It’s to her customers that Wendy gives credit for her success. From the hunters, farmers and fishermen who help her open up the joint before dawn to the regulars who stop in for a tasty lunch literally every day — including all the Mattituck High School seniors — the crowds remain steady.
Even as more breakfast and lunch spots have opened up around town, competing for people’s appetites, her core customers have remained loyal.
“The competition has actually made things better,” she said. “People eat at all the different places and that’s great. They still come back.”
Wendy says her formula for success has been to keep things as simple as possible. First off, you have to have great food. She said she also makes sure to keep her prices low enough that someone could, in theory, afford to eat lunch there every day. And she’s created a sense of home by decorating the store with her own scenic North Fork photographs. “This place is so beautiful, it’s hard to take a bad photo,” she jokes.
Wendy’s also been loyal to her employees — or “my girls,” as she calls them. Most of her full-time staff has worked with her for five years or longer. They’re all young mothers.
“She’s really good with our hours,” said Ms. Kingdon, who’s worked at the deli for eight years, taking a brief hiatus a few years back to give birth to her son, Brayden. “Wendy’s very flexible. With all of us being moms, that’s so important and hard to find.”
The result, Ms. Kingdon and co-worker Marcy Vizcalla say, is a sense of sisterhood among the staff. Their longevity at the business has also enabled them to develop a connection with the customer base that’s similar to the one their boss shares.
“It’s more than just, ‘How you doing?’ ” Ms. Vizcalla said.
“We could tell you what just about everybody in Mattituck eats for lunch,” she adds with a chuckle. “You start to really love each customer.”
That “love” extends beyond daily transactions and grows into good deeds. Whenever someone in the community is in need, Wendy and her girls are there to help.
Whether it’s selling T-shirts to raise money for a hospitalized young man from Mattituck or for a charity created in memory of a young woman struck by a car and killed, the deli has raised a significant amount of money in the past year alone.
The latest effort has been selling bracelets for a Greenport woman recently diagnosed with cancer.
“They came in with a bunch of bracelets just yesterday,” Wendy said. “They’re all gone. Our customers love to help out.”
That generosity is not lost on the community.
Mattituck resident Jane Flinter, who’s been a regular at the deli since it first opened, said Wendy has a “heart of gold.”
“Rarely do I enter the deli without noticing some kind of support,” she said. “Her staff wearing T-shirts for Ben [Pileski] or Kaitlin [Doorhy], collecting toys at Christmastime, putting out a jar for donations to a needy family. She regularly supports our local schools by donating food for special events. She also supports our local firefighters and EMTs in myriad ways.”
Wendy’s Deli also partners with the Lions Club each year on a $1,000 scholarship for a high school senior who frequents the deli.
For anyone who worries that Wendy might want to move on one day, that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
“No way,” she said. “I don’t ever want to retire.”
2014 — Greenport Harbor Brewing Co.
2013 — Charlie Manwaring
2012 —Jill Schroeder
2011 — Shelley Scoggin
2010 — Peconic Landing
2009 — Rocky DiVello
2008 — John Romanello
2007 — North Fork Press/Academy Printing
2006 — Soundview Restaurant and Inn
2005 — Joe Frohnhiefer
2004 — Dan Damianos
2003 — The Arcade
2002 — Kate McDowell
2001 — Mattituck Chamber of Commerce
2000 — The Harbes Family
1999 — Sue Rempe
1998 — Bob Scott
1997 — Jackie Copas
1996 — Richard Mullen
1995 — The Claudios
1994 — Jeff Strong
1993 — The Hargraves
1992 — The Rowsoms
1991 — Mark Middleton
1990 — John Wickham
1989 — Ray Terry
1988 — Dave LeFreniere
1987 — Linda Livni