Well-packed sandwiches are the hallmark of The Beli, a delicatessen on the Alabama beach
The pandemic has caused suffering and hardship around the world. But, as is the case with so many dark clouds, there were silver linings. One shines brightly in Gulf Shores: The Beli.
The exterior of The Beli, with its rainbow letter sign and pretty cottage style, will put a smile on your face. The action inside the Beli will also make you happy; this time, happiness comes to your taste buds, with the little kitchen whipping up big sandwiches stuffed with creative combinations of fresh ingredients that taste great, like the Big Momma, a juggernaut of provolone, feta, turkey and jalapenos smothered in raspberry jam and hot sauce.
But without COVID-19, Beli probably wouldn’t exist. It opened in April 2021 and is the result of a series of “right place, right time” moments. Owner Anna Beth Ryan grew up in Gadsden and after college went to culinary school in New York. After graduating, she went to work for celebrity chef Tom Colicchio at his restaurant river park in Manhattan. Everything was going well, her career as a cook was progressing.
“And then 2020 happened,” Ryan says. Everyone at the restaurant was fired, but everyone involved thought it was temporary. The 28-year-old returned home to Gadsden and then, along with her grandmother and other family members, decided to self-quarantine at the family’s beach house in Gulf Shores. “I thought I would be there for about two weeks,” she said.
Four months later, she was still in Gulf Shores and bustling. A small turquoise building was being built across the street from her family’s house, and she stopped to ask what it was going to be. “It was near us, and I was just curious,” she said. “The owners told me they wanted it to be a restaurant and then they asked me what I thought it should be.”
Ryan quickly told them what she would do with the space and explained exactly how she would do it. “I said it had to be a sandwich shop; there’s not a whole lot of it here, and while the seafood is great at the beach, sometimes you want something else.”
They ate everything Ryan said, and quickly called Ryan and told him his concept had won. “I didn’t know that was what was happening when I was talking to them; I was just sharing my thoughts,” she said. “They had heard of a few national chains before but thought my ideas were better, and here we are.”
The Beli’s name is a beach deli mashup, and its solid foundation is Ryan’s core food philosophy: simpler is better and fresh is everything. “Fresh ingredients are essential to good cooking. You just have to care enough about it to build your food around it,” she says.
And build is an appropriate verb to use. Beli’s huge sandwiches aren’t made, they’re built. The Miss V, with thick smears of spicy chili cheese, mounds of sliced turkey and rounds of salami topped with lettuce, tomato and chive mayonnaise on toasted sourdough, weighs nearly 1 pound.
The aforementioned Big Momma is also tall and responsible. According to Ryan, it’s her in sandwich form. “All of my sandwiches are named after friends and family. It’s either kind of what I think they are or made up of their favorite things,” she says. The Dave-O (a little- sammy lunch with spicy chili cheese, a fried egg and bacon on toast) is Ryan’s cousin.
La Nut-Ella (also on the breakfast menu) is a cook she worked with in New York. “She was always melting us Nutella sandwiches when we came home really late from work,” Ryan says. The Miss V is a combo. “He’s my grandma’s feisty dog and an old friend, Victoria, who loves chili cheese,” Ryan says. He and the Big Momma are usually the bestsellers.
The food is the main draw, but the location is also ideal. “I love this place,” says Ryan. “The only thing that would make things better is if my grocery store was right on the beach.” Just over a year after opening, The Beli is already expanding, adding more seating and space for live music. And Ryan is determined to get his food “right on the beach”, with plans to do deliveries by bike to the area’s west beach.
While Ryan hopes diners at The Beli will taste the fresh difference and feel satisfied enough when they leave to plan a return visit, she also wants them to engage with her enthusiasm to serve her guests well. “I want you to like food, but I want you to know how much I want you to like it,” she says. “I want you to taste that passion and want to come back for more.”
She started a hotel business, Mouth of the South, and plans to open more restaurants. “I want everything to work properly and then be able to do other projects, but that’s in a few years,” she says. For now, she is happy in Gulf Shores. Next time you visit the beaches of Alabama, head to The Beli. Your belly will be happy too.
This story originally appeared in Living in Alabama Magazine.
408 West Beach Blvd.
Gulf Coast, Alabama
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.