The business name starts with “high,” and it sells items named “doobie” and “420,” but San Luis Obispo’s iconic High Street Market & Deli is more a dispensary of sandwiches than anything else.
In fact, there are even logical reasons for the above details: The deli is named for its location on High Street. The building’s address number used to be 420 — though it’s since been renumbered by the city to 350. And the current owner, Randy “Doobie” Coates earned his nickname from his mother because he was her “good kid, ‘Romper Room Doo-Bee,’” he said.
Still, the potential pot-culture inferences were obvious to then-Cal Poly student Coates in 1999 when he strolled across the street from his apartment to buy a sandwich from the deli.
The 26-year-old ordered his lunch and decided on the spot that he wanted to buy the longstanding business from Brian and Abbey Lucas. So, he did.
“I’d been supposed to go on a surf trip with some buddies,” Coates recalled with a chuckle. “Instead, I bought a deli.”
Meanwhile the Lucases went on to build their culinary cred at Sebastian’s General Store in San Simeon and then The Café in Cambria, and now own the Cambria Antique Archaeology shop.
In the nearly quarter century since Coates bought the deli, he’s turned those “high” coincidences into “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” marketing magic for the shop’s funky merch and now famous sandwich cuisine.
“Our marketing just got more and more fun,” Coates said.
Central Coast business has made history for nearly a century
High Street Market and Deli’s website says for nearly a century, the building has been a beloved corner store for many, starting as a one-stop-shop selling things such as milk, butter, chewing tobacco and fishing gear.
“Even when High Street was nothing more than a dirt road, people would stop by to grab a pint of milk, cigarettes and a delicious deli sandwich on their way to or from the railroad station,” the website said of how the shop “catered to the hardworking individuals and families of the time.”
Noted area historian James Papp prepared a 2021 report about the property’s provenance, noting that the market and deli is “one of San Luis Obispo’s few surviving pre-World War II corner groceries.”
The first corner grocery store was built on the site in 1866, according to Papp’s report, and the existing building and an adjacent house were built in 1926.
As the property and business sold separately through the years, the latter operated under various names.
In 2021, the city’s Cultural Heritage Committee added it to San Luis Obispo’s Master List of Historic Properties as No. 127, because of the shop’s longevity and its connection to the town’s Black history.
Significantly, the store — named the Tiny Mart then — was “the first Black-owned grocery, first Black-owned business with Black-owned premises and last surviving Black-owned business from the era of the Great Migration,” Papp said in his report.
The Great Migration was when millions of Black southerners relocated to northern and western cities and areas throughout much of the 20th century.
“The property is associated with Frank and Alberta Bell, considered to be the first Black grocery owners in the city,” he continued, “and its survival serves as a representation of a Great Migration-era Black business.”
Papp’s report said the Bells owned the market from 1966 to 1979.
How L.A. native transformed High Street into SLO fave
Coates’ parents Randy Coates and Norene Cantella moved to San Luis Obispo in 1995 from Los Angeles to open Uptown Espresso and Bakery on Higuera Street. They ran it for 20 years, even after it became BlackHorse Espresso & Bakery.
Their son, a Los Angeles native, stayed in Southern California until 1998 when he transferred to Cal Poly from community college, he said.
About a year later, he bought the deli.
Over the years he’s helped to transform it into a mainstay of the San Luis Obispo food scene.
In a 2021 tally, Yelp reviewers rated High Street as one of the eight best sandwich shops on the Central Coast, and it consistently ranks at or near the top of similar listings.
The emphasis at the San Luis Obispo deli — and Coates’ new Baywood Park location — is quality and consistency with friendly service and an upbeat, slightly counter-culture vibe.
“We make all our sauces in house,” he said. “We slice everything fresh for the day. Our breads are fresh.”
The shops’ sourdough comes from Brian’s Artisan Bread Co. in Atascadero and other varieties are from Pan de Oro and Back Porch Bakery.
Coates even worked for weeks with those bakers to perfect High Street’s trademark Dutch crunch bread, which is a cornerstone of the deli’s Dutch Punch sando.
It’s the deli’s most popular offering, stacked high (of course) with smoked turkey, bacon, red onion, tomato, romaine lettuce, homemade chipotle mayonnaise and “the works.”
The San Luis Obispo deli’s menu spans nearly 20 sandwiches, including two different pastrami sandwiches, a West Coast Hoag(ie), Italian Sub, Nashville Club and the “Highzenburger,” which is filled with house-made meatloaf, burger style.
Some unusual ingredients on the menu include roasted artichokes, whipped cream cheese with scallions and jalapeño havarti.
Daily specials can include the Kalhua Pork, Garlic Starship, Californistrami and other more out-there sandos.
“Between the two delis, we probably use about 1,000 pounds of Boar’s Head turkey a week,” Coates estimated.
Customers can build their own sandwiches, and even opt to “make it STONEY, with the sando maker’s choice of extra ingredients to trick out your sandwich.” The delis also offer lettuce wraps for people who avoid gluten.
For those who say its clientele is mainly Cal Poly students, Coates tends to disagree.
“Our primary customer base is not just college students,” Coates said. “Look at a map. We’re not anywhere near the campus. Once you’re parked at Cal Poly, you don’t really want to leave.”
He does run Tuesday “college” specials, he said — but to help lure in all locals, Coates slashes prices every day at 4:20 p.m., and even offered a 10% “rain or shine” discount on a recent stormy day.
“We get a lot of tourists and do a lot of catering to businesses in town,” he said. “It’s a pretty diverse group of customers.”
The market side of the delis offer some Doobie-style merch, plus a limited grocery selection.
What’s up next for High Street Market & Deli?
Those originally drawn to the eatery, perhaps because of the kitschy name and vibe, soon find really good food underneath, and nothing has stopped the community from eating its food since — not even the COVID-19 pandemic.
Coates said the shop “closed for a couple of weeks” but because it didn’t have any indoor seating, the closure order didn’t directly affect the deli.
“So we used that time to do some kitchen remodeling, and then just kept doing what we do,” he said.
Launching online ordering didn’t go quite as smoothly.
The day the business reopened with that service in place, he said, “we were so busy, we crashed the entire system.”
Coates and wife Kayla live in Los Osos with their children, ages 7 and 9. Conveniently, they’ve opened another High Street deli in a historical structure at 1326 Second St. in Baywood Park. They took a couple of years to remodel it, then opened in 2021.
“Both locations have great historical importance,” Coates said, noting that “the Baywood place was moved from its spot on the pier in the 1940s, when the pier was torn down.”
The Baywood deli has some items not offered in San Luis Obispo, such as Hearst Ranch burgers, a Cubano sandwich, beef dip, house-cut fries and Strauss soft-serve ice cream that “makes great floats with our craft sodas on tap,” he said.
Meanwhile back in San Luis Obispo, Coates is getting ready to renovate the original building, which has been remodeled a few times throughout the decades.
“We want to make it better, but exactly the same, keeping its historical significance,” he said. “The siding, probably from the 1940s, is shot. It’s so bad, we can’t even paint it anymore. It just flakes away.”
He said he’s currently trying to match paints to what was on the building based on original photos.
He also plans to replicate the historic sign.
“We’ll repaint it to the original condition,” he said.
For more information
The High Street Deli, at High and Carmel streets, and the Baywood deli at 1326 Second St. are open from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The Baywood location is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but the San Luis Obispo location is open every day.
Both have dog-and-kid-friendly patios, and the Baywood deli has a large dedicated play area for children.
The phone numbers are 805-541-4738 for San Luis Obispo and 805-439-2977 for Baywood. But they don’t take orders by phone, encouraging customers to order online at highstdeli.com, even up to three days in advance.
High Street Market & Deli is also on Facebook and Instagram.