Updated: Sep 20, 2022
A businessman sits in one corner of the bright dining room, clad in a white button-up and slacks and typing away on his laptop. The remnants of his breakfast have long been set aside in a white to-go box.
A college girl enters in sweatpants and fluffy pink slippers to order avocado toast and an iced coffee. Then, a family of four, who orders five breakfast burritos.
A middle-aged mom-type makes her way in next, ordering a large black coffee.
“We only have one size.”
“Oh, that’s fine, I guess. And a veggie omelet. Make it egg whites.”
As each customer enters, a kind-looking man in glasses calls out from behind the counter, “Hey-hey! How are you doing today?”
He takes each person’s order, then retreats to the kitchen to help make the food he’s about to serve. The customers eagerly grab their orders from the small counter, and he offers them extras: salsa, a plastic bag to hold their order, sauces and fruit.
“Have a good one!” he exclaims, watching as they leave one by one, hands around hot meals wrapped in tinfoil and Styrofoam.
This is a typical Friday morning for the Saleh brothers at 615 Deli.
Samer and Fekri Saleh grew up in Yemen and emigrated to Nashville in 1993. They opened the deli’s doors in March of 2020, and while they are no strangers to owning a small business, the food industry is new territory for them.
“Our family had always been in the gas station business. After several years of that, though, we kind of felt like it was time for a change,” says Samer Saleh, known by friends and family as “just Sam.”
A deli may seem like a big change from the gas station industry, but Sam is in good spirits about their transition.
“My brother knew the owners of this location — you know, this place used to be a cafe and I think a Subway. So we talked to them and bought it. We took over, and my brother had some experience in deli, so we changed it to a deli,” he says.
“I think it’s going well.”
It is. After struggling through their grand open at the start of a pandemic, the Saleh brothers bounced back over the summer of 2020 and have now established their daily routine and found loyal customers.
“It was hard. We opened during one of the worst times in history. But here we are, standing here talking a year later,” Fekri Saleh laughs.
Each morning, Fekri unlocks the doors and begins morning preparations; each night, Sam cleans up and closes. Every single day from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., at least one of the brothers is behind the counter taking orders and making food.
The brothers began 615 Deli just off of Belmont’s campus, located right where Belmont Boulevard turns into Portland Avenue. And so close to the university, the sense of community runs thick, the brothers say.
“I do feel so connected to everyone here. Day in and day out, everyone is so kind,” says Sam.
At first glance, the deli looks like every other hole-in-the-wall cafe, both inside and out. The floors are gray tile and black grout, with thick, white-painted brick walls. At the front of the deli is a wooden counter with metal barstools, and a few lights wash over the wooden tables and white metal chairs scattered throughout the room.
A soda machine and fast-food-style counter sit by the door, and nearby are ketchup packets and coffee fixings in a large plastic tub.
There’s a TV in one corner that never turns on.
Nothing about the decor matches, and at first glance, it may look underwhelming.
That is, until you see the menu.
Written on a giant chalkboard, the menu stretches several feet over one wall and extends on above the serving counter. It’s was hand-painted by a local Nashville artist and features nearly 50 options, with carefully brushed images of tacos, salads, eggs and bacon.
The menu has something for everyone. Craving breakfast foods? Perhaps a breakfast taco with eggs, potatoes, pico de gallo and guacamole, or try a breakfast Reuben, which consists of corned beef, egg, swiss cheese and sauerkraut.
Hungry for lunch? Try one of the deli’s 16 sandwich selections, from the Everroast Chicken to the Music City Tuna, or their fan-favorite Milanesa made with fried chicken, bacon, jalapenos and pepper jack cheese. But that’s not the end of the menu: don’t forget their multitude of wraps, burgers and salads, or their build-your-own burrito and quesadilla option.
After previously working at another restaurant, Fekri says he began coming up with his own ideas for menu items, which he now uses for his very own deli.
“I worked there for two years and just started figuring out my own thing.”
The magic result of Fekri’s improvisation is made right there in 615’s kitchen, with fresh local ingredients and hardworking, skilled hands ready to serve any one of the many items requested by their hungry customers.
A man walks in, and Sam goes back behind the counter, waiting patiently to begin the next order. The customer stands against the wall, contemplating the menu. He understandably can’t decide. After nearly five minutes, he orders a sandwich, two tacos, and asks if Sam would recommend the fries.
“I don’t know what to tell you, man. They’re good,” Sam says.
He gets those, too. Then he sits in a metal chair and waits for his food.
The menu itself isn’t the only thing in the deli made by a local Nashvillian; most of the ingredients are, too.
“Everything we can source locally, we do. Bread, produce — it’s all from Nashville,” Sam says proudly.
Fekri notes that at least 80% of their products are from local small businesses and farms.
“I think we just like keeping it close to home,” he says.
“Home” is a good word to describe the environment the Saleh brothers have created, and 615 Deli has become a hub for people from all walks of life. Every day its doors welcome everyone from college kids to construction workers to Nashville families, all looking for the same thing: a quick and fresh meal. The Saleh brothers prioritize forming a relationship with their customers and making the deli a place for people to meet and bond over great food.
A young couple walks in. They each order the same thing: a breakfast burrito and an iced coffee. They laugh together as they add in their sugars and syrups at the self-serve coffee station, and Fekri smiles as they leave.
“They come almost every day,” he muses.
Though 615 Deli has only been open for over a year, its incredible food and service have attracted numerous regulars who come through nearly every day, and each week the brothers serve more and more new faces.
Brennan Troy goes to 615 at least four to five times a week, he says, and he thinks it’s the energy of the deli’s daily crowd and the friendships he’s made with the staff that keeps him coming back.
“I love that dude, Sam. He just got a buzz cut the other day, and I noticed. That’s how connected I feel to them; I know when they get haircuts!” he exclaims after taking a bite of his breakfast BLT.
“It feels like buying sandwiches from your friends.”
A group of five students wanders in during the dinner rush, speaking excitedly about vaccines and classes. One of them, Caden Diffenderfer, is a 615 regular, but his buddies have yet to try it.
“What’s good?” one of them asks.
“The Milanesa is the best,” Diffenderfer responds.
Sam nods in agreement behind the counter.
The friends each place their orders, ranging from the Nashville hot chicken burger to a quesadilla with chips and salsa, and sit at the barstools at the front of the dining room.
With each bite comes murmurs and moans of satisfaction.
Diego Melendez, who did, in fact, order the Milanesa, is especially pleased.
“This might be the best sandwich I’ve ever had,” he says, chuckling. “This place is the spot. It’s not talked about enough. I didn’t even know it existed.”
The sun has finally set, and the group wanders out of the deli at around 7:30 p.m., still bubbling about their meals. After saying his goodbyes to his customers, Sam begins to clean up, taking out the trash and restocking the plastic napkin containers.
“My favorite part of the day is when people compliment the food,” he says. “When they say they enjoy it, it makes it all worth it.”
The lights are off and the doors are shut. An empty 615 Deli now sits, waiting for Fekri to open it back up in the morning and welcome the next day’s next businessmen, college girls and middle-aged moms.
PHOTO: Inside 615 Deli, located just off campus on Portland Avenue. Belmont Vision / Lillie Ryann Burke
This article was written by Lillie Ryann Burke. Photo by