Don Damiano serves Thumann’s meats at his neighborhood deli in Cornell Heights. Staff photo.

At 5:30 a.m. sharp, the proprietor is up and preparing for the long day of work ahead. He starts by bringing in orders from bakeries. Then around 6:30, the first wave of customers comes in to get their breakfasts.

As the morning goes on, things slow down a bit, and that’s when Don Damiano of Damiano’s Deli prepares for the lunch rush, which begins around 11:30 and ends around 1:30 p.m.

Damiano sometimes gets help from his daughter, a second-year college student, during lunch hours. But generally he gets it all done on his own. Long hours and lunch rushes are just one part of owning a deli. Getting to know the community is another.

“It’s basically another whole family,” he said during a lull on a recent weekday.

He first worked at a deli at age 10 and by 14 was nearly running it himself. Yet it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that he would make the business a career. After high school, he got a job with the N.J. Division of Motor Vehicles (now the Motor Vehicle Commission).

But the world of cold cuts and warm smiles eventually called him back, and today he says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m my own boss,” he said. “Does it get any better than that?”

Damiano’s Deli is located on 403 Princeton Ave., Mercerville, a rare commercial venture in the mostly residential Cornell Heights neighborhood. It has been there for more than 17 years. The deli receives about 100 customers a day, Damiano said.

Damiano’s shop specializes in party trays and has just as many hot entrees in the menu as it does cold. On the Damiano’s menu are roast turkey breast sandwich ($3.85 small), a chicken caesar wrap ($3.59 large) and an Italian sausage sandwich with peppers and onions ($3.59). He serves Thumann brand deli products, but also receives supplies from Pennsylvania that he uses for some store-made items. When it comes to creating or perfecting his recipes, Damiano said he goes for a trial-and-error approach and tastes everything he makes at least once.

Damiano, 51, born and raised in Ewing, has been in business for a combined total of 30 years. He got his start as a deli owner in 1976 in Ewing Township when he bought into a three-way partnership.

When he decided to move, he didn’t want to settle in a strip mall, preferring to acquire a stand-alone building that he would own himself. He moved his operation to Cornell Heights in 1989. The quaint little store has a history back into the 1940s – “before roads,” Damiano said.

He said Cornell Heights is “a peaceful neighborhood with real nice people.”

Damiano is divorced, but said he is still friendly with his ex-wife, Sandy, who ran the store with him for many years. His children, a son and daughter, are both in college now, but they were once regular fixtures in the deli as well.

Ninety percent of business is probably repeat customers, Damiano estimated, and over the years he has gotten to know them well. In some instances he can even associate them with the sandwiches they order. Often, customers will ask for “the usual.”

“I’ve seen a lot of people grow up in this neighborhood,” he said.

Forrest Parker is one of those repeat customers. The Hamilton resident has been going to Damiano’s since 1989. He returns time and again because of the hospitality he receives while there as well as the quality food, he said.

“They went out of their way to remember your name,” he said. “I like them, I think they’re wonderful people.”

Though the inside of the store has pretty much stayed the same, construction in the area abutting the Hamilton Train Station has altered the surroundings. Princeton Avenue used to extend onto Sweet Briar Avenue, but today is a dead end, and customers have to travel around the block to get to the deli today. It makes things a bit more difficult, Damiano said, but for now, he is dealing with it.

“I just love what I do,” he said.

Damiano’s deli is open from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday thru Friday and from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday. The deli can be reached at (609) 587-5361.