University District

Sam's Deli fuses all-American deli with classic Indian dishes in the University District

Sam’s Deli, located at 643 South Highland Street, traces its roots back to humble beginnings, but the husband and wife team who run the business have high hopes for both Sam’s and the south side of the University District.

Brad and Shamira Wilbanks started serving the sandwiches that are a staple of the Sam’s Deli menu out of the Sam Cooper Food Market, a gas station they owned from 2012 to 2018 at 605 North Perkins Road.

Although they had reservations about launching a successful gourmet sandwich business out of a gas station, they decided to capitalize on the high volume of customers visiting the station daily and dedicate a section of the store to a deli.

“Serving food is the biggest challenge for a business even when it’s done out of a [proper] restaurant,” said Brad Wilbanks. “I thought we may have to give them away at the beginning.”

But his fears were unfounded. They sold 30,000 sandwiches in less than a year.

The success at the gas station gave the Wilbanks the confidence to open the full-service Sam's Deli. The deli opened its doors in the University District in July 2018. It takes its name from their dog, Sam, who was a fixture at the gas station.

“I love cooking so having my own restaurant has always been a dream of mine. I look forward to continue doing what I do best — keeping our customers happy, and seeing the business grow,” said Shamira Wilbanks.

“I hope that the restaurant is here to stay for a very long time. Opening Sam’s has really been a dream come true.”

Sam's Deli owner-operators Brad & Shamira Wilbanks pose inside the restaurant. (Baris Gursakal)
Sam’s Deli offers an eclectic selection of food choices that can’t be found at an average Memphis deli. The variety spans from classic deli style sandwiches like an all beef Cuban they call “the Big Tex” to traditionally Indian dishes like chicken tikka served on a fresh, flakey hoagie. It also includes several other influences and specialties. 

“Our fusion is so twisted," said Brad. "It’s Cajun, Korean, Indian, and a little bit of Middle Eastern, so it's an eclectic fusion of different spices. You’re not going to get our taste anywhere else."

“I feel like they have something for everybody,” said full-time community organizer, part-time foodie and Sam’s Deli customer Hunter Demster. “They have everything from mufulettas to cuban sandwiches and bibimbap.”

Their menu features items borrowed from Petra, a restaurant formerly located on Madison Avenue which Brad ran from 2005 to 2012. Shamira also prepares Indian plate lunches served Wednesday, Friday and Sunday every week.

“One of my favorite dishes to cook is chicken biryani. People love our butter chicken as well. Now I have people asking me when we will be serving our Indian dishes all the time,” said Shamira.

Sam’s Deli also offers off-menu items, daily and weekly specials. Savvy customers ask what's available at the time of their visit. 

“People say, ‘You can’t really get creative with turkey and ham,’ but we’ve found a way to get creative where it has loads of taste,” said Brad. “We’re always doing something different.”

Everything at Sam’s is cooked to order with fresh ingredients purchased daily.

“During one visit, Shamira took the time to come out and talk to me about how labor intensive it was to make their habanero hot sauce,” said Demster. “It’s impressive that they take four hours to make their own hot sauce rather than buying it ready made. I always appreciate when the owners take the time to come out and talk to customers like that.”

“I shop daily for the first three hours of every morning,” said Brad. “I go to four or five different locations for our stuff but I get everything fresh, that way we’re always serving fresh ingredients, fresh vegetables. Our meat never stays in the fridge more than three days from the time we buy it.”

Katie Craft and Memphis 901 FC midfielder Raul Gonzalez enjoy dining at Sam's Deli. (Baris Gursakal)
According to the Wilbanks, being at the south side of Highland Street has its challenges, but they are optimistic that future development in the area will improve their business.

“Everybody thinks that this area is dangerous, but we’ve been here for nearly a year and we haven’t had any trouble so far,” said Brad. “Our biggest problems are the trains that go through here all the time and the cars that fly down the road and make it dangerous for pedestrians.”

They hope that a new walking bridge that goes over the train tracks will encourage more University of Memphis students to shop in the area.

Brad hopes that further investments by the University of Memphis in the South Highland area will mirror the effects their previous investments had on development of new businesses and housing north of the Southern Avenue railroad tracks.

The University of Memphis has announced plans to open a new middle school at the former St. Anne Catholic School located at 670 South Highland Street, less than half a mile from Sam's Deli. The Wilbanks hope it too will bring more foot traffic and improve prospects for businesses.

“The best thing about being at this location has been meeting people around the community and becoming a part of it, so I’m looking forward to seeing it grow,” said Brad.

The Wilbanks also have plans to grow Sam’s Deli with improvements to their building, as well as additions to their menu and longer business hours. They’ll then aim to open new locations in other cities.

They have plans to start serving an all-day breakfast menu and eventually obtain a liquor license to draw a late night crowd from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. on weekends.

For their building, Brad said they will expand their patio space and upgrade their signage. He has plans to install lights on the building and surrounding trees and paint a checkered pattern on their driveway in University of Memphis Tigers’ blue and gray school colors, of course.

“We’re building a Tiger’s den,” said Brad. “When people can’t make it to the stadium, we want to be a place where you can get drinks and watch the game, sit around and still be in that camaraderie of the university. In the future, we’d like to have a Sam’s Deli which serves that purpose at every college town.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Baris Gursakal.

Baris Gursakal is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is an Istanbul native who grew up in Memphis, and has an interest in public policy and social justice issues.