After a hard year on Fourth Avenue, the 4th Avenue Delicatessen has undergone a change in ownership.
Austin Counts, who brought 4th Avenue Deli to life six and a half years ago, announced his plans to close the restaurant on Dec. 15, 2019. Good news shortly followed in the announcement that long-time employee Kylie Myers had bought the shop and planned to keep the space as is.
Counts earned a degree in journalism at the University of Arizona in 2011, but after finding no job prospects years later, he turned back to the comfort of the restaurant business, which kept him afloat through his teens and early twenties.
The story begins when Counts was working at The B-Line on Fourth Avenue. He was walking through Food Conspiracy Co-op one day when he saw the posting just across the street that said the shop’s current space was up for sale. He jumped at the opportunity and “the rest was history.”
After six and a half years of owning the deli, which he often struggled to keep up with financially, Counts wanted a career change. When it came to Myers taking ownership of the deli, Counts called it a “no-brainer.”
“[Myers] is just a master of customer service, far better than I could ever be,” Counts said. “I’m really glad it worked out the way it did. I’m glad that she’s keeping it going. I couldn’t think of a better person to do it.”
The deli was closed for a few weeks following the Fourth Avenue Street Fair but held its ground and reopened on New Year’s Eve with the support of local business owners on the avenue.
“[Being a business owner] comes with its challenges,” Myers said. “It’s definitely a little scary — a little nerve-wracking — with all the bills, and you’re just never really sure how things are going to work out. You’re especially never sure how things are going to go downtown, on Fourth Avenue.”
Businesses on the avenue have always been in constant flux, especially for restaurants with large high school and college student customer bases like 4th Avenue Deli.
Being near the university, business booms twice per year during the Fourth Avenue Street Fair and lags behind just afterwards when students go home for winter break and summer vacation, according to Myers.
The avenue has incurred quite a few changes in the past few years, as parking prices rise and outside corporations enter the economic arena in the area.
“The rent is driving small business owners elsewhere,” said JT Van Huss, an employee of the 4th Avenue Deli. “These companies come in and they’re just raising everything up and it’s kind of difficult for the small-town people to keep up with it.”
Myers and Counts both cited parking prices as a major contributor to problems on the avenue. Developers demolished the Flycatcher bar on the southwest corner of Fourth Avenue and Sixth Street in order to build student apartments in July of 2019. Soon after, the city converted the bar’s once-free parking lot into a paid one.
Myers may have a plan to amend the issue. One of her first acts as the deli’s new owner is to get set up with Uber Eats to bring the 4th Avenue Deli to customers who would otherwise have trouble getting to the shop.
“I want to encourage people to eat local,” Myers said.
Myers’s big campaign to “eat local” has support from her employees, like Van Huss, and the support of the business owners on Historic Fourth Avenue.
“Support local businesses,” Van Huss encouraged. “If you don’t — especially on a place like Fourth Avenue, which has so many unique, eclectic local shops — you’re going to get stuck with a bunch of chain restaurants.”
Since its inception, the deli has been a Fourth Avenue staple. It’s small, wide enough for a single file line out the door with only a few barstool tables in the space.
“Fourth Avenue really needed a deli, just a classic deli,” Counts said. “I’m a long-time Tucson resident and that was something I felt was lacking. You have Bison Witches, which is a fantastic sandwich shop, but it doesn’t have that old school, East-Coast deli feel to it.”
Flanking the counter and booths are tall, creamy walls lined with black-and-white photos of classic artists, musicians, mobsters and boxers — some of them signed. Old VHS tapes play in the small box television by the counter. Counts’s favored classic rock and roll plays through the speakers.
“It’s a fun, unpretentious sandwich shop,” Counts said. “When you go in there, you know what you’re going to get. The food is fantastic — it’s a classic environment. It really has no frills, in a good way, and I think that’s what the customers like. A lot of times, downtown, it almost feels like you’re paying for the atmosphere instead of the food. People should be paying for how good the food is, not to hang out.”
Counts is still a major part of 4th Avenue Deli, even though it is not a part of him. From the pictures of musicians on the wall to the conception of the shop itself, and even Myers’s management style, a little bit of him will stay in that shop until the end of its days.
“[Counts] taught me everything he knew,” Myers said.
Myers even added a new sandwich to the menu in his honor — “The Godfather,” the sandwich that Counts used to make for himself while at the deli.
According to Myers, she sees no need in changing up a good thing any more than necessary. She plans on keeping the store as is, with its Wildcat specials, crime syndicate sandwich names and the classic, “unpretentious” deli atmosphere that Counts ingrained into the shop’s foundation.
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