MONTEREY, Calif.--It never stops. One after another, Army soldiers and Marines walk through the doors in search of lunch -- or an early dinner -- and before they can even get to the food, they get a huge and hearty welcome, usually by name.
This is Compagno's Deli, just about the only shop in an otherwise residential neighborhood high on a hill overlooking this coastal town about two-and-a-half hours south of San Francisco. But a block away is an entrance to Monterey's Presidio, home to the world-famous Defense Language Institute, and that means a lot of very hungry servicemembers come calling every day.
How deli sandwiches fed a military memento collection (pictures) See full gallery
There's plenty of ways that could go. But for Bennett Compagno, the deli's owner, the steady flow of military customers has become a family -- albeit one that is ever-changing given the temporary nature of soldiers', Marines', Navy sailors', or airmen's time in Monterey. And in the 14 years since he took over the store from his father, Compagno has also become family to that stream of servicemembers, feeding them hearty food, and becoming a friend in an otherwise unfamiliar town.
That would all be heartwarming on its own. But because Compagno has been so good to so many, they have been good to him in return. As a result, nearly every inch of ceiling and every wall in the deli features an incredible array of gifts he's been given over the years by grateful military personnel who stopped in so many times.
The list of gifts is long: drill sergeant hats; commanding officers' nameplates; caps from Navy sailors' ships; a whole collection of G.I. Joe toys; T-shirts from various armed forces units; and more. "Before they leave for their next duties," Compagno said, "they'll drop [gifts] off because they want me to have it."
I had been in town working on several other stories for Road Trip 2012 and found myself at Compagno's looking for nothing other than lunch. But within minutes of walking through the door, I knew I had wandered into someplace special. Regardless of your feelings about the military, you can't help but appreciate the honest sentiments that are so proudly displayed here.
And there's no question that it's for real. Returning the next day to talk to Compagno about his store and his impressive collection, my interview was constantly interrupted when a new servicemember would walk through the deli's door and the owner would unhesitatingly jump up and greet the arrival, usually by name.
The day I stopped in to talk to Compagno had been a busy one for him. Earlier, he had catered a large ceremony honoring the change of command for the local Marines -- certainly a job that had come as a result of the relationship he had built with the military over the years.
As he and I were talking, two young Marines came in to make a lunch order. "Hey, Marines, did you go to the changeover?" Compagno asked.
"Yes, sir," they replied.
"Did they run out of food?" he joked.
There were other Marines in the store, as well, including Pfc. Paul Fine and his wife, Lance Cpl. Jessica Fine, both posted to the Defense Language Institute for Korean language studies. The two said they come to Compagno's whenever they can "because their sandwiches and hoagies are amazing and huge."
I asked them what they thought of the welcome Compagno offers to his military customers. "It's great," Paul Fine said, "because it makes me feel at home...And good food is essential to learning languages."
Noting the walls and ceilings packed with military memorabilia, Fine continued: "I have a feeling he knows pretty much everybody, the commanding officers, and the higher enlisted [soldiers]."
Compagno had told me that occasionally local residents will buy members of the armed forces their lunches, and Paul Fine said he'd seen that happen, though he'd never yet been the recipient. But while we were talking, Compagno quietly gave the couple free cake to go along with the sandwiches they had bought.
The stream continued, mostly Marines and soldiers, and one by one, he greeted them, sometimes with a handshake, others with a big hug. One apparently was about to move on to his next posting. "You'd better come and say goodbye to me," Compagno said to the man. "I will," the soldier responded.
Good beers from around the world
Because his deli is so close to the Defense Language Institute, Compagno knew that many studying there had spent significant amounts of time in countries all over the world. So he figured that one way to get in good with the students would be to stock a wide selection of beers from some of those nations. And while he doesn't have quite as many as he used to, the shelves still sport brews from Lebanon and Russia, among others.
That kind of attention to their needs -- plus the fact that the menu features specialty sandwiches named for a number of the military services -- leads to incredible loyalty, even from some of the soldiers Compagno never really got to know.
I asked for a favorite memento, and he brought over a framed picture. "There was a kid from the Navy," Compagno began. "I didn't know who he was. He came in two or three times a week. The day before he left, he came in with a present."
He showed me the photo. It was a signed picture of "M*A*S*H" character Radar O'Reilly. "To Bennett, Thanks for taking such good care of my son Jordan," the inscription read. It was signed by actor Gary Burghoff, who played Radar.
Before I left, I noticed that Compagno kept breaking out little phrases in one language or another to the soldiers -- usually the one they were studying.
As two soldiers were walking out, one said to Compagno, "You know more languages than anybody."
"I wonder why," the other deadpanned.