Article By: Karen Gardner
Photos By: Josh Triggs
Burkett’s Deli is a neighborhood eatery right in downtown Hagerstown, the sort of place where everybody feels at home.
Owner Charles Burkett and his wife Wendy took over a sandwich shop and convenience store at the same location eight and a half years ago, and Charles has turned the restaurant into the kind of place he’d like to take his own family to. Friendly, unpretentious, with the kind of home-cooked food that keeps the locals and out of town visitors returning again and again.
Burkett bought the building that houses the restaurant at 23 N. Locust St. a decade ago, and when the sandwich shop closed shortly thereafter, he decided to try his dream of running a restaurant. For 20 years he operated a commercial cleaning and property management business, but he loved to cook.
“It’s a lot different than what people think it is,” he said of the restaurant business. “You could make a hundred different types of cole slaw, and still not please everyone. But I’ve gotten used to not being able to please everybody.”
But he has pleased a lot of people. By 1 p.m. on a gloomy March day, he had already sold out of his signature cream of crab soup. He emphasized that he makes the soup, like just about everything else, homemade, with fresh ingredients.
“I make as much fresh and homemade as possible,” he said. He also knows what his clientele wants. “Being downtown for 20 years, you get to know the people,” he said. “People are my passion, even more than cooking.” Before he went into business for himself, Burkett said he lived on the streets, and struggled.
A Hagerstown native, he spent much of his childhood at the San Mar Children’s Home in Boonsboro, and credits San Mar for giving him the tools to deal with his struggles as a young adult.
“God blessed me, and if I can help someone else, I will,” he said. He buys his crabmeat from Potomac Seafood because the owner is a local small business owner, just like he is. “We pay a little more for it, but it supports her downtown business.”
He likes being downtown, and gets a lot of support from local office workers. Burkett’s also delivers. “I don’t do a lot of advertising,” he said. “It’s mainly word of mouth.” Wendy manages the restaurant’s popular Facebook page, which has many testimonials, and Twitter page, which has the daily specials.
Their youngest son, 13, helps in the restaurant one day a week. Their older three children, ages 18, 19 and 25, also spent many years helping out in the restaurant and credit it for teaching them good work ethics.
“When I was working for someone else, I always had a hard time keeping a job, because I always had different ideas about how to do things,” Burkett said. “I’ve always been very entrepreneurial.”
Burkett tries to give his customers what they want. He serves breakfast all day, and makes everything homemade. “If someone wants biscuits and sausage gravy, we don’t keep it sitting around all day, we make it fresh,” he said.
“We try to make everything homemade,” he said. “That’s a bit of a hassle, at times, for our employees, but we make it work.” He doesn’t know of any other deli in the area that serves pastrami, and the restaurant is known for its Reuben sandwich.
The restaurant’s Dog House features include a quarter pound hot dog. The colorful names for hot dogs include The Po’ Boy Reuben, The Deputy Dog, The Coney Dog, The Big Johnny, The Steamer Dog and The Hager Dog. The chili used in the Steamer Dog is made fresh daily.
Besides the Reuben, other specialty sandwiches include the Rachel (like a Reuben but with turkey instead of corned beef), Pastrami, Rib Eye Steak, Big Fish, Country Ham, Grilled Chicken and Thick Fried Bologna.
All burgers are one-third pound, and along with the usual selection is The Big Chucky (two burgers) The Buffalo Burger (Buffalo sauce), The Ranch Burger, The Pizza Burger and the Onion Cheddar Burger.
There’s a full line of cold sandwiches, chicken dinners, chicken tender dinners, hot turkey or roast beef sandwiches, New York strip steak dinner and catfish with fries or onion rings.
The fries are homemade, including a disclaimer on the menu which says “Fresh potatoes sometimes turn dark when frying due to the amount of starch in the potato.” You can get your fries curly, or topped with cheese, gravy, bacon and cheese, steamer (chili), cheese steak and crab.
There is also a full breakfast menu with eggs cooked any way, omelets, breakfast sandwiches, pancakes, French toast, biscuits and gravy, fries, or bagel and cream cheese.
Tiles on two walls give a glimpse of the restaurant’s popularity with visitors. Out of towners are asked to sign their name and hometown. “We get people here from Canada to South America, Australia, Germany,” Burkett said. “If I don’t recognize them, I try to get them to sign our wall. Among the several hundred signatures, visitors have come from Ellicott City, Decatur, Georgia, Morgantown, West Virginia and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Others on the wall have tried the restaurant’s Food Challenge. “We’ve even had a couple of professional eaters,” Burkett said. This consists of the Burkinator Sub (a 12-inch bacon cheeseburger with two pounds of burger), three orders of chili cheese fries and a large drink. Those who finish in a half hour get the meal free; those who need an hour get a T-shirt.
The restaurant also has healthy options, Burkett said. Salads are available. The restaurant’s catering menu offers many grilled and vegetarian options and sandwich wraps not on the standard menu. “I can cater any menu, from meat loaf and mashed potatoes to Chicken Chesapeake,”
All summer, he offers outdoor seating on the patio in front of the restaurant. “It has made a little bit of a difference,” he said. “I want to keep this a nice little spot.” The restaurant’s employees stay for a long time. “I’ve got great employees,” he said. “People in the community get to know them and they get to know me.”