Shortly after noon a couple dozen high school students came rushing through the front door of J&J Deli and Asian Mart, part of a longtime weekday tradition suggesting the 43-year-old business is hardly starving for customers.
But the lunchtime routine for many nearby students, government employees, construction workers and others may soon be disrupted since the owner says he’s planning to close the deli in August unless a buyer is found.
Neil Doogan, 59, a lifelong Juneau resident who purchased the deli from the original owners in 2010, said the closure is due to health rather than economic reasons. He still comes in at 5 a.m. to help prep food for the coming day before going to his job with the state, with his wife Alma doing nearly all of the remaining daytime duties.
But for the past few years she has been hindered by ailments affecting her hands, back and feet, prompting to couple to decide to walk away from the business when their lease expires in August.
“If I didn’t have health issues I could continue because I love the community,” Alma Doogan said. “They’re not customers, they’re family.”
The deli at the corner of Glacier Avenue and West 12th Street looks much the same as it has for decades. Harsh fluorescent lighting inconsistently illuminates four aisles displaying an eclectic range of mostly imported goods. Inside the antique deli counter where students are lined up at the front are a handful of anonymous-looking, plastic-wrapped sandwiches that will make nobody’s Instagram feed.
But for regular customers walking from schools, the federal building and other locales within a few blocks it’s about what pleases the stomach and heart.
“They’re just friendly and it’s a family-owned business, and it’s nice to support something like that,” said Kaitlyn Forst, 16, a sophomore at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé who’s been a frequent lunchtime customer since middle school.
Keith Crocker, 52, who’s been coming to J&J since the 1990s and just barely beat the student lunchtime rush Monday, said he’s seen few changes to the deli’s food and decor since his first visit.
“And I like it that way,” he said. “The sandwiches are great, the people who work here are fantastic. They always remember what you order.”
Crocker added: “I will be disappointed if they close. I think a lot of people will be disappointed.”
His son, Kai, 19, a lifelong Juneau resident who works at the Capitol, said he’s been a regular at the deli since his school days, along with plenty of his peers.
“You couldn’t go a day without seeing somebody from here walking the halls with something from there,” he said.
Neil Doogan said he and his wife originally intended to buy a restaurant due to her longtime experience in food service, including eight years at the Valley Restaurant her relatives own. He – of course – knew about J&J Deli while in high school and had friends of working there, prompting his interest when it was put up for sale by John (“Jack”) and Susan Woods, who started the business in 1979.
“When we first bought it we thought it was amazing Jack and Susan kept it going for 32 years,” Neil Doogan said, adding the couple passed the word on to others about the sale so the initial months were quite busy.
“It just goes to show the community didn’t want it gone,” he said.
The Doogans resolved to keep deli’s menu for the sake of its longtime customers, but did over time add the Asian grocery section and initially experimented with a few hot dishes from Alma Doogan’s native Philippines. But the lack of an on-site kitchen and a need for state permits to prepare food off-site brought that to end within the first year.
Much of the aging equipment also needed maintenance, so “we were making money, but all of it was going to bills,” Neil Doogan said.
There would be up-and-down cycles during the next 12 years – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, although he says they weathered the shutdowns better than many – but ultimately his wife’s health became a foremost concern at about the time they signed a new lease four years ago.
“When we bought it my intent was to pass it onto our children,” he said. “They were interested, up to a point.”
The couple’s youngest son, Isaac, 16, was helping them during Monday’s lunch rush and learned how to operate the cash register at the age of 4, according to his father. But the high schooler’s ambition now is to become an engineer.
“This was our dream, not theirs,” the elder Doogan said.
The old-school mentality means J&J Deli has little presence in the online world, with no website or social media to promote its offerings. There’s a mere four Yelp reviews — although all of them are five stars.
“Their sandwiches in the display case didn’t look that appetizing,” a reviewer using the name George L. wrote in November of 2020. “Looks may not be first rate, but the taste was great.”
While the Doogans have been trying to sell the business for a few years, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic deterred one serious buyer, Neil Doogan said. A couple more potential buyers have expressed interest recently as society returns to something resembling normal, although the deli’s fate remains unknown.
But as word of the potential closure has spread it’s created a situation much like the Doogans’ first months as owners, with an influx of fans coming to satisfy their cravings while they can.
“It’s generated more interest again,” he said. “People are coming in to get their fix of sandwiches in case we do close.”