Reubens and Racecars

Tiffany Ciesicki

Carl Picelle bought the Franklin Square Deli in downtown Kent 23 years ago, and it has managed to pull in a crowd ever since.

Franklin Square Deli owner Carl Picelle poses with some of his racing pictures and memorabilia that are displayed in the store. Picelle races his 1985 Porsche during the summer when not at the deli.

Abby Fisher | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: Ron Soltys

It is a typical corner street deli. The atmosphere is friendly and welcoming. It’s small with only eight little, wooden dining tables. The lighting is dim when the sun isn’t out, and reggae music plays subtly in the background.

Deli manager Jill Wymer said she knows everyone in town, even though she doesn’t live here.

“I’ll see (customers) across the street and start making what they want before they even step foot through the door,” Wymer said.

She has been working at Franklin Square Deli, 108 S. Water St., since the day it opened and said she thinks it is the little things that keep the customers coming back.

“We try to take it a step above. We really work on quality and presentation,” she said and gestured toward the little vases in the center of each table, holding a fresh pink carnation and baby’s breath.

“And of course the people here,” she added. “It’s just like home, it’s hard to quit. People look at me like I’m crazy, I know.”

Carl Picelle bought the small deli on the corner of Main Street and Water Street in downtown Kent 23 years ago, and it has managed to pull in a crowd ever since. Today, it is a town favorite.

Wymer said Picelle has been a major reason why she has worked at the deli for so long. She knew and worked with him even before Franklin Square opened. She added that he is also what the customers come back for.

Polite, friendly, seemingly eager to greet the guests, Picelle gets a lot of regulars at his deli. People from around town, as well as students and faculty from the university, regularly pop in for their favorite sandwiches. Over the years Picelle has found the ability to really read people. He says he can detect new customers and know right away whether they will be coming back.

But that guy behind the counter with the big, brown eyes and welcoming smile has had a passion burning inside of him for years. When Picelle was 12 years old, he, his best friend and his friend’s dad made a trip to the Mid-Ohio Sportscar Course in Lexington. He stood in awe of that course.

“I was hooked ever since,” he said.

He displays his passion for anyone to see. His restaurant is decorated with scores of photos of race cars and drivers Picelle idolizes. Black and white ceramic tiles checker certain parts of the walls. His logo, a checkered racing flag blowing in the wind, is printed on the glass doors and embroidered on the uniform hats.

“Let’s just talk about racing.”

Picelle spends about 55 hours a week here on average. Every morning he comes in early to make the soups. There are at least four or five different soups that change daily and are made fresh by Picelle himself. They range from classics like Italian minestrone, to less traditional soups, such as Nantucket tuna chowder with bits of yellowfin tuna.

After a while he lifted his grungy, bluish gray hat with the racing flag logo off his head, exposing the lighter areas of his gray hair. After straightening the hat back on his head, he leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs and folded his hands on his knees. His eyes perked up and he said, “How ’bout we just talk about racing. You can drop everything else. Let’s just talk about racing.”

Wymer and Picelle’s other friends know there is another man, different from the friendly face recognized at Franklin Square. He is a man who thrives on the race track.

“He is completely different at the track than he is at the deli,” said Wymer. “You can tell he’s in his element. He is around everything he loves.”

Even fellow business owner Brad Patterson, owner of The Loft, located near the deli, agrees that comparing the man who owns the deli to the man behind the wheel on the track is like comparing night and day.

An avid spectator all his life, he began competing in 2003. He held back from becoming involved in racing for many years because of the numerous expenses. He participated only as an observer, and an admirer.

It started with the purchase of his red 1985 Porsche 944. He then joined the Porsche Club of America. In time he found out the PCA had its own club racing division and offered a type of driver’s education for high-performance driving. Once he completed a series of courses, he qualified for a competition license, which he finally obtained in 2003.

“He’s always loved racing,” said Wymer. “I’m so glad he is doing it now.”

He said it is when he is out on that track, going more than 100 miles an hour, and surrounded by 35 other drivers at the first turn of a race that he feels the most at ease.

“For some reason on the race track I have the ability of slowing things down, and I can’t explain what happens.”

“It’s weird,” he said with a laugh.

But at the deli there is no clarity of mind while he is running around like a maniac during the lunch rush at Franklin Square. He admits there is obviously some love associated with his business. After 23 years there has to be. But his heart thrives on the track.

During his first real season, Picelle found out he was a competitor. “Then I won a race,” he said. “And then I won another race. Then I won an enduro, a longer two-hour race.” He lifted his head and laughed, “And that was the end of it, that was like ‘OK here we go.'”

Since then he has won numerous races, and began participating in races sponsored by the National Auto Sport Association. Though proud of his accomplishments, Picelle doesn’t boast.

He said he won the regional championship title in 2004 and 2005, and placed second this year. He also placed third in the national championship most recently.

“Racing is probably more addictive than any drug that is out there,” Picelle said. “It gives you all those sought-after sensations that we all dig for and just don’t get to experience on a day-to-day basis.”

Picelle said racing is his only interest. Wymer remembers other interests.

“We used to call him ‘pasta-rasta’,” she said, recalling his love for reggae. She also brings up his love for golf and cooking.

“He is really so good at everything he does,” she said. “I’m always impressed with how quickly he picks things up.”

Behind the counter

Now racing and the deli take up all of Picelle’s time. When he was younger he used to travel and said he tried to make it a point to visit the Caribbean once a year. He was married just last year and admits he and his wife don’t get to live the normal married life. The only “getaways” they share together are weekend trips for racing events. Picelle said he’s lucky his wife doesn’t mind, and she enjoys sharing his passion.

“It’s a hobby you can’t do unless you do it correctly,” he says. “I mean there is no half attempt or mild attempt. You have to really engulf yourself in a full effort.”

Unfortunately, Picelle has accepted the fact that for him racing will never be anything more than a hobby, because of his age and the financing involved. Off the track Picelle drives a Yukon. “I used to have a street Porsche and a ‘crotch rocket’ as they’re called, but they aren’t practical anymore.”

Picelle feels fortunate that he has the opportunity to connect his love with his work, and some customers do make the connection between the man behind the counter and the racing enthusiast.

Wymer said there are people who follow Picelle’s racing and frequently stop in to ask how he is doing, what race he has coming up or how he did on his last one.

Wymer said the man whom she has heard referred to as the “sandwich Nazi” is really a very generous guy who would go out of his way for anyone.

“He’s more than the Italian guy behind the counter,” she said.

Picelle is the familiar, humble guy behind the counter of Franklin Square Deli, suggesting that you try number 34 instead of your usual number two.

A board listing 42 sandwiches, tweaked and perfected over the years, is not the only accomplishment Picelle displays in his deli. Now, alongside the countless racing memorabilia that adorn the walls of his deli, he can proudly hang newspaper clippings with his own name printed in the headlines.

Contact public affairs reporter Tiffany Ciesicki at [email protected].