The hallmark of a thriving beach deli.
Story and photos by Jennifer Kornegay
The pandemic caused massive suffering and countless hardships all over the globe. But, as is the case with so many dark clouds, there have been silver linings. One of them glints brightly in Gulf Shores: The Beli.
The outside of the The Beli, with its rainbow-lettered sign and cute cottage-like style, will make your mouth turn up in a smile. The action inside The Beli will make you glad too; this time the happiness happens to your taste buds, with the small kitchen turning out hefty sandwiches stuffed with creative combos of super-fresh ingredients that are big on taste, like the Big Momma, a behemoth of provolone, feta, turkey and jalapenos smothered in raspberry jam and hot sauce.
But if not for COVID-19, The Beli likely wouldn’t exist. It opened in April 2021 and is the result of a series of “right place, right time” moments. Owner Anna Beth Ryan grew up in Gadsden, Alabama, and after college, went to culinary school in New York City. After graduation, she went to work for famed chef Tom Colicchio at his restaurant Riverpark in Manhattan. All was well, with her cooking career moving along.
“And then 2020 happened,” Ryan says. Everyone at the restaurant got laid off, but everyone involved believed it was temporary. The 28-year-old came home to Gadsden, and then with her grandmother and other family members, decided to quarantine at the family’s beach house in Gulf Shores. “I thought I’d be down there for about two weeks,” she says.
Four months later, she was still in Gulf Shores and getting restless. A small turquoise building was being constructed down the street from her family’s house, and she stopped in to ask what it was going to be. “It was near us, and I was just curious,” she says. “The owners told me they wanted it to be a restaurant, and then they asked me what I thought it should be.”
Ryan quickly walked them through what she would do with the space and explained exactly how she’d do it. “I said it needed to be a sandwich shop; there aren’t many down here, and while seafood is great at the beach, sometimes, you do want something else.”
They ate up everything Ryan said, and not much later, called Ryan and said her concept won. “I didn’t know that was what was happening when I was talking to them; I was just sharing my thoughts,” she says. “They’d already heard from a few national chains but thought my ideas were better, and here we are.”
The Beli’s name is a mash-up of “beach deli,” and its firm foundation is Ryan’s basic food philosophy: Simpler is better and fresh is everything. “Fresh ingredients are so key to good food. You just have to care enough to build your food around that,” she says.
And build is an appropriate verb to use. The Beli’s huge sandwiches are not made, they are constructed. The Miss V, with thick smears of spicy pimento cheese, mounds of sliced turkey and rounds of salami topped with lettuce, tomato and chive mayo on toasted sourdough, weighs in at almost a pound.
The afore-mentioned Big Momma is large and in charge too. According to Ryan, it’s her in sandwich form. “All of my sandwiches are named after friends and family. It’s either kinda who I think they are or made up of their favorite things,” she says. The Dave-O (a breakfast sammy with spicy pimento cheese, a fried egg and bacon on toast) is Ryan’s cousin.
The Nut-Ella (also on the breakfast menu) is a cook she worked with in New York City. “She always made us melted Nutella sandwiches when we got home really late after work,” Ryan says. The Miss V is a combo. “It’s my grandmother’s feisty dog and an old friend Victoria who loves pimento cheese,” Ryan says. It and the Big Momma are usually the best sellers.
The food is the main draw, but the location is prime too. “I absolutely love this spot,” Ryan says. “The only thing that would make it better is if my deli was right on the beach.” A little over a year since it opened, The Beli is already expanding, adding more seating and room for live music. And Ryan is determined to get her food “right on the beach,” too, with plans to do some bike deliveries to the area’s West beach.
While Ryan hopes The Beli diners taste the fresh difference and feel satisfied enough when they leave to plan a return visit, she also wants them to engage with her enthusiasm for serving her guests well. “I want you to love the food, but I want you to know how much I want you to love it,” she says. “I want you to taste that passion and want to come back for more.”
She’s formed a hospitality company, Mouth of the South, and has plans to open additional restaurants in the future. “I want to get this running right, then be able to do some other ventures, but that is a few years off,” she says. For now, she’s happy in Gulf Shores. The next time you’re visiting Alabama’s beaches, make your way to The Beli. Your belly will be happy, too.
408 West Beach Blvd.
Gulf Shores, AL
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10am-3pm