PHOTOS CAMERON FLAISCH
ART IMITATES LIFE” is a phrase that is used to explain why our art looks, sounds and reads the way that it does. The idea is a simple one. Art is created using our recollection and perception gained from personal experiences.
While it is not hard to see this in most artwork, it may be easier to recognize this philosophy at work in the stories we tell. For years, authors have used similar characters within their work. We are all familiar with a damsel in distress. She is beautiful, frail and in need of a savior. Now, picture the bad guys. They are often characterized as dark and mysterious foes whose sole purpose is to cause as much heartache as possible, and are usually motivated by a tormented past of their own.
There are numerous character archetypes that are easily recognizable in many storytelling mediums. These characters are used so often because they are mirrors of ourselves and our neighbors. They imitate the people and personalities that we come in contact with every day. Perhaps this is why we can watch and read stories about these characters and relate strongly to their plight. We even label the people we know as “characters” when their personalities take on a fictitious feel. Oftentimes, we pull the people we know into the stories we tell.
Those of us in North Georgia do not have to go far to meet a man who seems to have been drawn straight from a Netflix original series. After a short drive north on I-75 and left off of exit 353, you will find yourself within a stone’s throw of Cloud Springs Deli (4097 Cloud Springs Rd., Ringgold) or “The Deli” as it’s known by its regular customers. What looks like a normal hometown deli, tucked in the center of a strip mall, is a book filled with stories from a plethora of performers.
As you walk into The Deli, you will likely see a vast array of artistic expressions, depending on what day of the week it is.
If it’s a Monday night, you’re guaranteed to hear old hymns and feel the Spirit move due to the weekly gospel singing that is hosted there and now in its 5th year. On other nights of the week, you may hear loud metal music and see young people thrashing about in a mosh pit near the back. Some nights are reserved for hearing the call of a bingo announcer yelling, “B-31!” to tables full of senior citizens.
In the past, there has even been an independent professional wrestling company putting on a show in the back for a full house.
Regardless of the variety of activities, you are guaranteed to see a man wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers hat who is hard at work behind the counter. That man is George Lepre and he is most certainly a character with a heck of a story.
Lepre and his Aunt Carol opened Cloud Springs Deli five years ago, and they had been there less than a year when he asked his landlord if they could host live music.
“She said that as long as no one complained about the noise, we could do whatever we liked,” says Lepre when asked about how live entertainment started at The Deli.
Soon, it was not just run-of-the-mill cover bands who were playing The Deli. Heavy metal, punk and hardcore bands from across the United States have made The Deli a regular stop on their tours.
“I grew up a heavy metal-hard rocker. So, I love that young people come here and play the music they want to play. I’m not sure Carol enjoyed it at first,” Lepre explains with a laugh.
The proof is in the pastrami. When he gets a break from filling orders for meatball subs and hoagies, Lepre often finds his way over to the pit to enjoy the music. He says he loves the atmosphere during shows.
It was during one of these performances that a man approached him about having wrestling matches at the restaurant. “I couldn’t believe it. He told me if I let him put a wrestling ring in here then he would pack the place out. And, he did.”
Although the wrestling ring is no longer in The Deli, it is still a conversation starter. Accord-ing to Lepre, people loved it and he saw many customers come through his doors because they “wanted to see the ring.”
He has since replaced the wrestling ring with pool tables and claw machines. It is clear that he and Carol do not want to simply serve food. They want The Deli to be a place where you can explore what makes you happy, and, of course, enjoy a great meal.
When asked about how many events The Deli currently has a week, Lepre’s reply was, “not enough.”
He says that he and his business partner Carol will do anything as long as it works for them and their customers. Lepre is not shy about admitting that his main motivation is good business but he also values his customers and wants them to feel at home in his establishment.
“Carol and I work hard but it is our customers that keep us going. We do these events to make money but they are also for you guys,” says Lepre.
When asked if there was something he would not do to create business his answer was immediate. “Alcohol. We won’t serve alcohol because we want the shows here to be for all ages.”
Lepre has been known to chase away those patrons who try to drink alcohol in the parking lot. He uses a bullhorn and yells at them about how he could lose his business and how he will have to quit hosting shows. For him, drinking alcohol at The Deli is no laughing matter.
“We want people to feel safe and protected. So, I enforce the rules,” he says with a serious look in his eyes.
He talks about his customers and his family but he also talks about the other businesses in the strip mall. “We want our events to benefit our neighbors as well. We want to help them put on events and to reach people, too. That’s what it is about,” he says genuinely.
While his personality and willingness to host almost any event at his business make him interesting, (he is currently planning a gun show), the real story of Lepre and The Deli is in the community that exists there. On an almost weekly basis, there is a hardcore punk show at The Deli. These shows are often headlined by touring bands but are opened by bands made up of local kids. It is at these shows that you are able to see what The Deli has done for people. Adults and teenagers alike flock to the shows for entertainment and to spend time with one another. They see The Deli as their second home; a place where they can be themselves without fear of being ridiculed.
These kids and bands, who are often covered with tattoos and dressed in a peculiar way, sometimes bump into Lepre’s other customers as they arrive for dinner before the show. They visit the other stores in the mall. They pass by the gospel singing group and the women who play bingo. Their favorite place to eat and hang out has formed a symbiotic existence due to their collective love for The Deli. “That is really what Carol and I want. We want to be a place where our regulars can feel comfortable. We want to have friendships and relationships with them. We want the community to know we are here and that we want them here as well,” he explains. Through his events and ideas, Lepre is bringing people together at The Deli.
“I am just extremely proud and honored that people want to be at my restaurant. It means the world to me,” he adds with a satisfied smile.
Lepre’s approach to business is seen in many local eateries, shops and bars that make up our small business community. He manages to keep what is important in perspective. For him, the people in his deli are worth more than the money they spend in his establishment. Thank goodness for local businesses who give us all a story to tell.
For booking info or a schedule of upcoming shows, call Cloud Springs Deli at 706-956-8128. You can also find a menu and a calendar of events online at cloudspringsdeli.com.