Surrey’s ‘Sandwich Nazi’ feeds Vancouver’s neediest

SURREY — It was a waiter’s rudeness that prompted a Lebanese immigrant to donate more than 128,000 sandwiches to hungry residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Salam Kahil, who lives in the poverty-stricken neighbourhood and owns La Charcuterie Delicatessen in Surrey, has brought sandwiches to his hungriest neighbours every month since making a promise to feed them in 1986, but now he’s helping more than ever and celebrating Thanksgiving by donating 500 brown bag lunches.

Kahil moved to Montreal from Lebanon in 1979, when a violent, escalating civil war spurred a mass exodus from the country.

Broke and hungry, he came to Vancouver six years later and took a job at a restaurant where the head waiter treated him so cruelly during a shift, he resolved to quit, but only after earning his free daily meal.

“I was crying all the way to my home,” Kahil told The Province. “And I made a promise to myself: I would never be poor and I would always help the poor people.”

Kahil estimates he has donated more than 128,000 sandwiches since that day.

“In 1986, I opened my first store and it was 50 sandwiches every month. Three years ago it was 300 meals, now it’s 500 meals. It just keeps going higher and higher.”

Kahil doesn’t accept donations and pays out-of-pocket for everything.

He said it feels “incredible” to feed the hungry and he looks forward to spending Thanksgiving contemplating all the good that came to him after making his promise.

“There’s lots to be thankful for — unlimited, really. I’m thankful I can bring joy and happiness to 500 people today.”

Kahil became infamous in recent years for his unique brand of customer service — if a customer uses their cellphone or forgets to say ‘please’ while inside his deli, they’ll be refused a sandwich.

For that, he’s been labelled the “Sandwich Nazi” by customers and media.

He admits to having a foul mouth, but his coarse manner may be offset by the kindness he offers the people he feeds.

His customer don’t seem to mind, either: After he suffered injuries in a major car accident in 2011, Kahil realized he’d have trouble delivering the brown bag lunches, so he began asking customers if they would help.

The response touched him — 50 volunteers came forward and now he’s joined by a few dozen of them every four weeks.

“They are the best, I have to admit it,” Kahil said.

On Friday, two volunteers joined Kahil at his deli to help prepare 1,000 slices of cheese, 1,000 slices of roast beef, 500 slices of turkey and 500 slices of tomato.

Dozens more volunteers came by the deli Saturday to help put the sandwiches together and pack them into brown paper bags with an orange, a banana and a drink.

Roland Clarke, organizer of the Downtown Eastside Street Market, said Kahil has a “heart of gold” and locals are grateful for his visits.

“He’s a great guy,” Clarke said. “He loves to give food out and help poor people. The sandwiches are awesome. When he comes by, you can see the lineup around the corner.”

Kahil said this Thanksgiving, he’s most thankful to be Canadian and to have friends, a roof over his head and food on his table.

“I’m thankful to be able to bring out the goodness in people, because the volunteers who come here, you have to remember they can go somewhere else for a movie or walk, but they really reserve their time to come help.”

neagland@theprovince.com

twitter.com/nickeagland

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