Whatever Floats Your Boat

Photo courtesy of New York Deli

The Sailor Sandwich: pastrami and knockwurst on rye bread with spicy mustard and Swiss cheese.

The story of Richmond’s signature Sailor Sandwich.

Carytown’s New York Deli has stood the test of time. Open since 1929, the deli has been through a location change and four different managing families. The story of its most popular sandwich dates back to 1943, when the University of Richmond was hosting the Navy V-12 program, a nationwide initiative to generate officers during World War Two. Participants of the program would visit the New York Deli and order the same thing over and over: a pastrami and knockwurst sandwich on rye bread with spicy mustard and Swiss cheese. No one at the deli understands why the sailors began ordering this strange sandwich. The consensus is that the students were simply experimenting and ordered the sandwich for fun before realizing they were really on to something. 

The owners of New York Deli at the time, the Brandeis family, quickly became accustomed to the students’ interesting choice. The woman at the front counter would yell for the cooks to make a “sandwich for the sailors,” instead of writing down the specific order. Over time, the deli added the Sailor Sandwich to its menu and watched its popularity grow.

The Sailor Sandwich quickly became a staple of New York Deli, attracting new customers with its unconventional combination of meats and flavors. Current New York Deli owner Demetrious Tsiptsis jokes about the popularity of the Sailor Sandwich, saying, “I’d look at them and smile and say, ‘I bet you want a Sailor Sandwich with potato salad. You’re a person I can tell has good taste.’” 

Nowadays, the sandwich has become a nationwide phenomenon, making its way to New York City and beyond. As one of Richmond’s signature culinary items, it’s hard to find a deli around the area that doesn’t serve the Sailor Sandwich. “All the delis. I haven’t found one yet that doesn’t have it,” says Tsiptsis. “It’s spreading and it’s growing.” NY-D.com


This article originally appeared in our October 2020  issue.

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