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Tyrone White: MLK Deli, It’s More Than Food

When thousands of car enthusiasts attended the Washington Auto Show in early April in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, a newly opened MLK DELI counted as a food option truest to D.C. culture and history.

The expansion of the community brand followed the relaunch of the original MLK DELI on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Southeast, the setup of another site in the nearby Entertainment & Sports Arena, and MLK DELI owner Tyrone White’s purchase of a seafood carry-out in Ward 7.

Less than two years after embarking on this entrepreneurial endeavor, White has shown little sign of slowing down.

“There’s a [street named after] Martin Luther King Jr. in every impoverished part of the country,” said White, 35, as he revealed his vision for MLK DELI.

Photo by Ja’Mon Jackson
Photo by Ja’Mon Jackson

Every day, upon walking down a set of steps and opening the glass door to MLK DELI, patrons enter a spacious room with walls of photos and paintings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the late D.C. Mayor and Ward 8 Council member Marion S. Barry, Malcolm X, former President Barack Obama, and other historically significant Black figures.

But it’s the service bar and kitchen that’s buzzing with activity as young men in Black aprons laugh heartily with each other while taking orders, and serving-up original meals with an artistic flair.

As each customer receives his or her order, employees smile and thank them for supporting their shop.

“I just want to open up shops and show people, if we come together, we can really fix our problems,” added White, a Southeast resident.

For White, MLK DELI culminates decades of on-the-field experience.

As a youngster, he and his friends often sold candy along Wisconsin Avenue in Upper Northwest and collected recyclables for the trash plant on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue in Northeast. During his 20s and early 30s, White solidified his spot on the D.C. music scene as the founder of Spill Gang, a collective of local rap artists and producers with whom he would host clothing and food giveaways.

As a social entrepreneur, White often went above and beyond, helping plan Congress Heights Day and Art All Night in 2016 with the blessing of Monica Ray and Khalil Johnson of Destination Congress Heights, a program comprised of community development professionals and volunteers.

A year later, when White rebirthed MLK DELI, he hired mostly returning citizens, many of whom he’s known for most of his life. “We try to give people a fair chance. All men work here, and people embrace that,” White said.

Every day, MLK DELI staff greet and serve hundreds of customers who nibble on a vast selection of meals named for D.C. icons and landmarks. The nearly 30 food choices, all of which had been developed by a team of homegrown culinary specialists, include the Big Chair Beef Reuben, John Wall Ham Sandwich, and the Mr. Lucas Fried Chicken, named for Gregory Lucas, MLK DELI’s original owner.

Above all else, the crab cake has dominated the menu, perhaps as a testament to District natives’ love for the crustacean.

A more critical phenomenon for White, however, centers on the example he and his employees provide to those counted out by the greater society. “Young people could see that you don’t have to be in the streets or a rapper. You can be an entrepreneur,” he said.

“It takes vision and determination. You just have to believe,” White continued. “I like seeing the smiles on people’s faces when they get a check. Just trying to put on the people who I’ve always been with outside so they can get a better mind frame.”

White, an H.D. Woodson alumnus and father of one, has lived in D.C. his entire life. He said MLK DELI has exposed him to nuggets of knowledge. One of his most recent lessons involved the media.

“I learned I need to be willing to do more interviews,” a cool, but deeply reflective, White said. “It’s just that I feel a lot of people do it for clout and make it a political stage. I’m not really into that because I was once that boy who needed things.”

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