Caught in the crossfire, Canter’s Deli stayed open to distribute water to protesters
It was late Saturday morning when Marc Canter’s phone began to light up with texts.
As thousands of protesters gathered at nearby Pan Pacific Park to protest the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the owner of Canter’s Deli was preparing to open his dining room for the first time in more than two months.
“I knew the protests were moving along 3rd toward Fairfax, which isn’t far from us. My daughter texted me,” Canter, 55, said. “I had relatives discussing with me whether we should close.”
But Canter’s, the 89-year-old delicatessen that has been on Fairfax Avenue since 1953, did not close, even as a line of 30 to 40 police officers formed on the street outside.
By noon, a sign had been placed in the restaurant’s window expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Canter and a few other employees began distributing 25 cases’ worth of water bottles to protesters and police, and offering food and use of the deli’s restrooms.
“We tried to keep the peace, just staying neutral,” Canter said. “The police couldn’t accept because they were on guard, but people appreciated the gesture. It was hot outside.”
Less than 24 hours after L.A. County restaurants were told they could reopen for dine-in service, many were vandalized during citywide George Floyd protests.
Canter said that most of the deli’s business on Saturday came from protesters ordering sandwiches or pastries. “We became like a pit stop,” he said. “If you’re walking around all day, at some point you have to eat.”
But clashes between protesters and police soon escalated. A small trash can fire broke out in the street, and police began firing rubber bullets into the crowd; just one block south, several police cruisers were set ablaze on Beverly Boulevard around 3 p.m.
“I know it sounds crazy, but if the police weren’t there, maybe there would have been less violence?” Canter said. “I don’t think the situation needed to become so extreme.”
Many of the shuttered businesses around Canter’s — including a nearby hair salon and clothing store — were looted and heavily damaged. The restaurant, however, escaped unscathed, aside from what Canter called “a drop of graffiti.”
“Most of the protesters were not there to cause problems but to express themselves,” he said. “The ones that did turn violent, it seemed like they came to take advantage of the situation. It’s really unfortunate.”
Keeping the restaurant — known for its 24-hour service — open throughout the chaos, Canter said, was a decision he made by default.
“I don’t think we would have escaped damage if we’d closed.” he said. “If you stay open, they’re not going to target you.”
“The cops told us, ‘If anyone gives you trouble, tell them you work at Canter’s.’”
During the 1992 L.A. Riots, Canter, then 27, said he remembers a car filled with would-be looters driving past once they saw the deli’s iconic neon sign was lit.
“I think they somehow respected that,” he said. “At that time we were feeding the whole city. We had people come in to buy a quart of milk because none of the grocery stores were open.”
But on Saturday, eventually, Canter’s did close. The police shut the restaurant down at 7:30 p.m., a half hour before a citywide curfew went into effect; it had planned to keep the dining room open until midnight. Canter said his 30 or so employees were detained for an hour before police let them leave.
Many were concerned about being arrested for violating curfew on the way home, so Canter typed up letters using the deli’s stationery explaining they were essential workers.
“The cops told us, ‘If anyone gives you trouble, tell them you work at Canter’s,’” he said.
At 9:30 p.m., the lights were turned off and the doors locked. Canter offered the day’s leftover soup to police gathered outside, which was not taken up.
Canter, for his part, was exhausted. He’d worked until 3 a.m. the night before preparing for table service after L.A. County’s surprise announcement on Friday that dine-in service could resume.
“We were expecting dining to be closed until July. It was shocking. I was scrambling to find enough individual condiments.”
As looters broke into stores in downtown L.A. during demonstrations over George Floyd’s death, a desperate owner begs them not to hit his restaurant.
In hindsight, he said, it was not a great day to reopen.
But on Sunday morning, the doors unlocked once more and diners started to trickle in. A handful of people cleaned debris off the streets, and foot traffic started to pick up on Fairfax. A military Humvee carrying National Guard troops rolled past.
Canter had once more hoped to keep the dining room open until midnight, a plan that was quickly dashed when the city announced a 8 p.m. curfew.
But there’s always tomorrow, he said. Canter’s will be open tomorrow.
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