By Jonathan Farrell
More than just another deli or a corner convenience store, Lucca Foods Deli and Wine Shop is an anchor, a cornerstone of the Sunset District community on Irving Street.
Lucca’s has been on the corner of Irving and 20th Avenue for more than 90 years. Owner Sam Kaleh is proud that his family business was awarded legacy status in 2019 by the San Francisco Office of Small Business and was added to the City’s Legacy Business Registry. The Registry recognizes longstanding, community-serving businesses as valuable cultural assets to the City.
During its nine decades, Lucca’s has always been a family-owned business serving the neighborhood. Originally established by Joseph Selvani in 1927, Lucca was the name given to the store perhaps because Lucca is a place reminiscent of Tuscany, a beautiful spot in Italy, idealized by many Italians.
“There are several deli and sandwich shops in San Francisco named Lucca,” local historian Woody LaBounty said. “One is on Chestnut Street, in the Marina, another was on Valencia in the Mission.” All were founded around the same time in the 1920s and ‘30s, but by different families, not actually related to each other.
LaBounty is the Vice President of Advocacy and Program at SF Heritage.
“I surmise that using Lucca was common at the time (with Italian immigrants) essentially because it probably reminded them of something pleasant from the old country,” he said.
After the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, and especially after World War I, the Sunset District along with the west side of the City began to grow.
Lucca’s has always been an integral part of the Irving Street merchant corridor, outlasting many of the long-standing businesses. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the economic landscape, Lucca’s has survived.
“It is because we are essential and I make sure that customers get what they need,” Kaleh said.
Voted “best deli” in San Francisco five years in a row since 2010, Kaleh and his family often go above and beyond for customers and the community.
“Mr. Kaleh has served as an active member and leader of the Outer Sunset Merchants and Professionals Association (OSMPA)” said former Sunset District Supervisor Katy Tang. Tang is currently the director of the City’s Office of Small Business
“He served for 15 years and even served the association as treasurer for more than 10 years. He has also developed strong ties with many of the neighbors who frequent his store on a regular basis,” Tang said in her letter to nominate Lucca’s, to the Legacy Business Program.
I was eight years old when my dad Abe Nassar bought Lucca’s from the Selvani family in 1972,” Anise Nassar said.
Nassar spent many hours at the store during childhood and has many happy memories. He recently posted his recollections on Facebook: “I helped my dad with whatever task was needed; stocking shelves, maintaining the produce stands outside. I even learned how to be a cashier,” he said.
Lucca’s long tenure is a reminder for locals of other cherished shops and businesses at the time, including Bowcart’s meat shop, Jeff’s Jeans, H.S. Salt Fish and Chips, Frank’s Floral Shop, See’s Candies and Pacific Five and Dime.
La Bounty said the sense of continuity that Lucca’s has been fortunate to maintain, is what caught the attention of the Office of Small Business.
“The Legacy Business Program has been in existence for 10 years for the purpose of highlighting and helping to preserve living tangible aspects that make San Francisco the special place it is,” he said.
The qualifications are that the business or establishment must be in continuous operation for 30 years or more and have contributed to the neighborhood in significant ways.
Nassar’s cousin Mazen Nassar took over Lucca’s in 1982, Mazen was dedicated, so much so that in the 1990s after more than 10 years of managing the store he diligently looked for the right person/family to take his place.
Mazen could see the City and the neighborhood changing as the dot com boom was occurring.
“The Sunset District must have vital local businesses, something more than restaurants, banks and real estate offices. I want Lucca’s to continue as a family business,” Mazen told the Sunset Beacon in 1997.
Since that time, as the dot com boom changed the City like never before, Kaleh and his family have been a mainstay. Being certified as a legacy business was granted perhaps at just the right time.
“Businesses placed on the Legacy Registry are then eligible for grants, support of special loans, marketing/promotion, etcetera,” LaBounty pointed out.
In addition to his commitment to the merchants’ association, Kaleh has been working to establish Lucca’s as a “green business” by setting up environmental standards and practices for the future.
Located at 1899 Irving St., Lucca’s is open seven days a week, 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Specialty foods and sandwiches can be ordered online at Lucca’s website at: luccafooddeli.com. For more information about the Legacy Business Program, including a list and map of businesses on the registry, go to sfosb.org/legacy-business.