From Monday through Saturday, there is hardly a parking spot to be found between sixth and seventh avenue on Broad Street around lunchtime. No doubt about it, Doug’s Deli Downtown is Rome’s hot spot for good food. People arrive in a steady stream to place their order. The large open space is kitchen centric and most of the inside seating has a view of the industrious choreography of 20+ cooks and bakers working in synchrony. The cheerful noises are welcoming, and to look at the employee’s faces they seem happy, and at ease. “This, amazingly, is a typical day,” says owner Doug Bowling.
Doug Bowling grew up in Nashville, TN. Raised in his Grandmother’s kitchen, he deeply understands the pull of good food and its power to bring people together. “My dad left us when I was just 9. I remember a lot of good memories came from cooking with my mother and siblings in Grandmother’s kitchen. It brought us comfort,” Bowling recalls.
At the University of Tennessee, he studied business management, met and fell in love with his wife Julie Bowling, and discovered his calling to help children in crisis. “While in college Julie and I both did work with the Tennessee School for the Deaf up in Knoxville where we discovered a passion for working with kids,” says Doug. Right out of college, the two continued their work with underprivileged children, and took a position as foster parents at Winshape Homes on Mount Berry. They are still on campus, 31 years later, loving and nurturing children less fortunate who need guidance and a stable home. Since 1989, the two of them have fostered 74 children and raised a family of their own.
How the Doug’s Deli Downtown came to be: “Five years ago, I came into this restaurant; it was Great Harvest Bread Company back then. My son, Ben was running a deli in Carrolton, and I thought it would be pretty great to have him a bit closer to Rome. So, I asked the owner about franchise options. In truth, she wanted to sell. If Ben decided to come, it would be his full-time job, I could provide leadership, but I wouldn’t be giving up my work at Winshape. A short two weeks of mulling it over we said, ‘let’s do it.’ With help from my wife, Julie, my son Ben and his wife, Whitney and my daughter Julianne, we opened our doors with a total of 8 employees.” Today the deli employs 33 people.
Doug talks about the epiphany that he had about six months after their opening. “I realized that we were having a dramatic effect on the people that were working for us. Honestly, it made me a bit nervous, because I wanted everyone who came to work here to have a great quality of life. I want them to prosper and excel in life. It hit me, their ability to have a roof over their heads and food on their tables really depends on how well we do here.” The need to grow the business became all the more important, fueled by this original value. The deli has taken off; each month outperforms the one before.
Then the virus hit. “I knew as soon as the schools were shutdown, restaurants were about to take a big hit,” recalls Doug. “We watched as everyone started shutting down and thought, ‘Woah! What are we going to do now?’” The questions eating at the back of every business owner’s mind was should they close, hit the pause button and try to ride it out? “2-3 weeks into the pandemic, we never even thought closing was an option. We employ so many young people who depend on us for a livelihood. On the flip side we want to honor the Governor. It was going to be a challenge, but we just knew we had to figure a way to stay open,” Doug states. That’s when they called a family meeting.
Doug explains, “We didn’t know exactly what it would look like, but we knew we had to flip the entire business plan upside down if we were to survive. The new ethos was stay in your lane. So, I took on customer safety, Ben created the much–needed drive thru and focuses now primarily on General Management, Whitney manages the Supper Club, Julianne manages the drive thru, and of course John Berry our business intern does everything! We figured if we could each stay in our area of expertise, it would help us stay calm and focused as business became unrecognizable.” What happened next would surprise them all.
Holding to their new mantra: to stay on the sunny side of things, they got creative. Doug’s Stimulus Package and Cares Act BOGO specials and music video montages took their social media by storm. “We went from 30 likes to 150 and our videos get a thousand views. Amazingly our followers climbed to over 2,000. People loved our stimulus packages and Cares Act deals. We began having fun with it, and the community embraced it! We got everyone involved creating uplifting videos online promoting our great food and new drive-thru.” Doug describes with a smile on his face. Since catering has all but stopped for the deli, they quickly moved to support their supper club. Increasing their business from an average of 40 prepared meals per night to nearly 160 suppers. The Supper Club would prove to be the key to sustainability that would allow them to retain 90% of their staff, with only a few of those – high school aged – who opted to stay home. “It was really humbling to see everyone push through and come to work.” recalls Doug.
Celebrating five years in business this July, the Bowlings have a lot to be thankful for. “We have an incredible team. I couldn’t be happier to see how we pulled together.” Check out their Instagram for some light-hearted fun, or better yet, celebrate their success story in person for a cheerful meal with great people and amazingly fresh food.