Legends of Deli
by Larry Aylward
They are two of the most iconic kosher-style delicatessens in the city that never sleeps. They serve pastrami and corned beef to the masses and by the masses. They are Katz’s Delicatessen and the Carnegie Deli, also two of New York’s most popular eateries.
But what may not be so well known about them is that Katz’s and Carnegie are also two delis that not only have their own meat plants, but they cure and smoke their own meats, too.
“That’s not common,” says Jake Dell, the fifth-generation owner of Katz’s Deli, founded in 1888 on New York’s Lower East Side. “Most delis don’t cure or smoke their own meats.”
Dell’s grandfather, Alan, owned the deli previously and was a friend of the family of Willy Katz, who began the business. Jake grew up in the business.
Katz’s Deli is known as the place where Meg Ryan faked a … we’ll just leave it at that … in front of a flabbergasted Billy Crystal during the legendary scene from “When Harry Met Sally”. (Someone re-enacts the scene about once a week, Dell says.) But Katz’s is more famous for its sandwiches, which are piled high with pastrami, corned beef and other meats.
Carnegie Deli, which opened in 1937 across from the Carnegie Hall as a 40-seat restaurant, is also known for its piled-high deli sandwiches. Jim Jorgenson, Carnegie’s director of operations, says the restaurant did so much volume that it didn’t have the capacity at its location to produce the amount of corned beef and pastrami that it was selling every day.
The Carnegie Deli, located at 7th Avenue and 55th Street, grew so popular that it had to open a plant in Secaucus, NJ, to meet demand. The family owned deli, operated by Marian Levine (her father, Milton, previously owned the deli and was knows as the CPM or “Corned Beef and Pastrami Maven”), is now on its second plant, located in Carlstadt, NJ.
Like the Rolling Stones, who began their career in the 1960s, the Carnegie Deli has several generations of fans, Jorgenson says.
“Some people remember when the deli first started,” he adds. “They still enjoy the experience of eating there.”
Katz’s Deli uses an old and proprietary recipe for its pastrami and corned beef, which takes up to a month to produce, Dell says.
“[The recipe] is wildly inefficient, and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone try and produce it,” he says, noting that’s one reason why Katz’s cures and smokes its own meats. “We want to have control of the flavor and the taste.”
The pastrami is cut from the navel end of the brisket because it’s fattier and the flavor is better, Dell explains. It’s cured in-house for up to four weeks. From there, it goes to Katz’s plant in Brooklyn where it’s smoked and rubbed with seasonings including garlic, pepper, onions and coriander. It’s then boiled for four hours at the restaurant before being sliced and served.
“It’s important for us to know that our product is the same product we’ve always had and always will have,” Dell says.
Carnegie buys its raw product from several vendors. Jorgenson wouldn’t reveal their names, but notes the restaurant’s purchases are based strictly on quality.
“We buy the best beef,” he says. “If you don’t have the best, you’re not going to be the best.”
Jorgenson says Carnegie’s aim is to focus on what it’s “really good at,” and not try to make its products better.
“My job is to focus on maintaining our current greatness,” he adds.
The Carnegie Deli open is open from 6:30 a.m. to 4 a.m. daily. The 32,000-sq.-ft. plant operates from 4:30 a.m. to about 3 p.m. and employs 40 full-time workers.
Jorgenson arrives at the plant when it opens. Shortly after, he takes a few walkthroughs around the plant to make sure all is well on the floor and to see if workers need anything.
Jorgenson scans the plant to make sure it’s clean and being properly maintained. He also studies the product being made.
“I want to make sure the facility is operating at its peak all the time,” says Jorgenson, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who says he prides himself on maintaining “the integrity of an institution” that Carnegie is. “I want to make sure the product we submit to the deli is top-shelf.”
The plant conducts daily audits. “Basically, everything we produce is audited,” he says.
Katz’s Deli has its own plant in Brooklyn and also contracts with other plants to produce its products with its secret recipes. A processor in upstate New York processes Katz’s hot dogs. Dell wouldn’t reveal the deli’s co-packers and didn’t want to reveal much about the deli’s Brooklyn plant. But maintaining quality is a steadfast goal.
“We ask ourselves: ‘Will the quality of meat that we’re going to serve customers be the exact same quality that they get every time they come into the deli?’ The answer to that is ‘yes.’”
Corned beef and pastrami are the most popular meats at Carnegie Deli, and are almost identical in volume, Jorgenson says. The Carnegie Deli also has restaurants at the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, Pa. The plant produces “thousands of pounds of meat a year” for the three restaurants alone, says Jorgenson, who declined to provide exact statistics.
“The restaurant’s business gets a lift here and there, but it’s always busy,” Jorgenson says. “There’s always a line out the door.”
Katz’s moves as much as 15,000 lbs. of pastrami and 8,000 lbs. of corned beef in a week. The deli cures its pastrami and corned beef on site.
“Right in the restaurant, we have a gigantic 20-by-30 ft. walk-in refrigerator that holds about 40,000 lbs. of meat in different stages of the curing process on any given day,” Dell adds.
Carnegie also has a steady wholesale business and shops its products interstate to many businesses and consumers. Deli and wholesale orders are consistent, so there’s always a good idea of how much product to make, Jorgenson says. Data is kept throughout the year to track growth and plan accordingly for the following year.
“We know in the fall that we will have a higher volume of pastrami and corned beef because people are getting ready for the holidays,” Jorgenson says. “After the beginning of the new year, people start to look at what they’ve been eating for the past three or four months, and pastrami and corned beef sales drop off.”
Dell keeps track of how much product is needed by studying “the waves,” he says. December is a busy month at Katz’s for obvious reasons – the holidays. Things slow down a bit after the holidays, but soon pick up again in the late winter and early spring. Business is usually a little slower in the summer because people don’t like to eat as much pastrami and corned beef in the heat and humidity. But regardless of the time of year, it’s Katz’s, and it’s relatively busy all the time.
Katz’s also ships its products around the country. But unlike Carnegie, Katz’s isn’t trying to grow its business too much through interstate commerce.
“There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just not who we are,” Dell says.
Because of the time it takes to cure, smoke and get product ready for the deli, the replenishing process is “a little bit of science and a little bit of art rolled into one,” Dell says.
While pastrami and corned beef are Katz’s most popular items, most New Yorkers come to the deli for its hot dogs, Dell says.
“That is our most popular product [for them],” he says. “We can go through as many as 4,000 hot dogs in a week. It’s our own recipe.”
Hot dogs are how Dell recognizes Manhattanites at the deli. They hover near the ordering counter with hot dogs in hand, waiting for their sandwiches to be made.
“[Our hot dogs] are the quintessential New York appetizer,” Dell says with a laugh.
What makes a good dog?
“The snap … the crunch on the outside,” Dell says, noting the deli’s dogs are cooked on a very hot grill. “And it should be nice and juicy on the inside. It should sort of melt in your mouth after you bite into it.”
Keep on keeping on
Jorgenson, who began his position about two months ago, says his goal is to make sure the plant employees understand the importance of their roles. While workers understand they are working for one of the most iconic delis in America, some of the employees had never been to the deli, so Jorgenson arranged for them to attend a meeting there to see the business in action. Jorgenson wanted them to see the customers they serve.
“It’s good for them to see customers periodically and know that the product they’re making for them has an impact,” Jorgenson says. “They also understand that our customers come from all over, not just New York.”
The employees were happy to see the deli so bustling and alive, Jorgenson says.
“It’s an event going on inside that deli,” he adds.
Dell has led Katz’s for five years. Even though he’s only 26, he knows the business well having grown up in it.
“It’s a natural fit,” says Dell, noting his upbringing. “It’s about tradition. Once you know the tradition, it’s not that hard.”
People come to Katz’s with the expectation that they will experience tradition, nostalgia, great food and a pinch of New York madness, Dell says. It’s his job to make sure Katz’s delivers.
“Doing it right is everything,” Dell says. “[The key is to] keep your head down and stay humble. I hate the term ‘experts’, but we know what we do, and we do it well.”
While Jorgenson says he’ll keep a close eye on technology and processes to upgrade the plant process, he wants to keep systems and processes in place to help preserve Carnegie’s legacy.
“The key is to keep it simple, and know what your core competencies are,” he says. “Our core competencies are pastrami, corned beef, cheesecake and service. You’re going to get exactly what you got in 1937. That’s how simple it is. We don’t want to try and be something that we’re not.”
Larry Aylward is a freelance writer from Medina, Ohio.