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Local Family Recalls Three Decades Of An Eastern Market Tradition

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Father and son, Emilio and Carlos Canales.
Jonna McKone
Father and son, Emilio and Carlos Canales.

On a steamy Saturday, the day after a destructive thunder and windstorm, Juan Jose Canales, 62, who has been up since 4 a.m. stands behind a packed case of meats, salads, guacamole, ceviche and sandwiches. A line bends around the case as people wait for sandwiches, turkey tails and empanadas, and lean against the glass and chat with Juan Jose about the neighborhood, a fallen tree and weekend plans.

Juan Jose Canales, who owns Canales Delicatessen, is chatting with everyone. One customer volunteers, "The market is really the center of the neighborhood. It's the town square, where you shop and meet people." And another explains that the Canales' have some very devoted customers who will only patronize the brothers.

Occupying the far corner of the market are three adjacent businesses owned by the Canales brothers. Juan Jose was the first to arrive in D.C., fleeing unrest El Salvador. His first job in the states was working on underground Metro construction crews in the '70s. Juan Jose always wanted to start his own business so when he heard about a stall opening at Eastern Market, he was thrilled and jumped on the opportunity to develop a food business. Canales Delicatessen has been in operation for the past 29 years.

Juan Jose has worked to help his two brothers get stalls in the market as well.

"I was always looking for an opportunity to help my brothers," he says. "When a stall became available I called [Emilio]. He said, 'well, I don't speak English.' And I said you will learn and you have three sons... And then a few years later, this stall over here became available, and I told my youngest brother Jorge there's an opportunity for you, too, if you want to get in small business."

Now Emilio Canales runs Canales Quality Meats and Jorge Canales, the youngest brother, runs Eastern Market Grocery. The stores sell a variety of foods, including sandwiches, deli meats, homemade sausages, and pastas.

The three brothers would like to keep their businesses in the family, as many of Eastern Market's other vendors have done. Carlos Canales, who's 30, plans to run Canales Quality Meats when his father is ready to retire. And Juan Jose hopes to pass on his deli to his daughters, one of whom who now manages Tortilla Café, which Juan Jose also owns.

The brothers say their favorite part of the job is interacting with customers and watching people grow and change. The sense of community and dedication to the market became particularly poignant during the 2007 fire that temporarily destroyed the building. These days, Juan Jose Canales is proud to call the market "a monument to community."

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Canales Delicatessen has been in business for 25 years. In fact, the business has been in operation for the past 29 years. The earlier version also stated that Emilio hopes to pass the deli on to his daughters. The name has been corrected to Juan Jose. We apologize for the errors.

Photos: Eastern Market


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