Once gathering places for Jewish immigrants, old-school Jewish delis are becoming scarcer by the year. In fact, over the last two years, some of the most iconic shops have closed their doors, including Carnegie Deli in New York City after 79 years, the Park Central Deli in Phoenix after 60, Ben’s Best Delicatessen in Rego Park, New York, after 73 years, and Ella’s Deli in Madison, Wisconsin, after 42 years.
Thankfully, there are still a number of Jewish delis today that remain relevant and popular, and many feel the niche deli can continue on forever.
Owned and operated by a single family for over 110 years, Shapiro’s kosher-style delicatessen is an Indianapolis institution with its corned beef, pastrami and brisket still slow-cooked in-store. While Indianapolis may not seem the most logical place for a Jewish deli to survive, Brian Shapiro, the current man in charge at Shapiro’s Delicatessen, notes that because these shops become institutions in the community, they attract customers of all ages and nationalities.
“I’m not sure people still view the iconic deli as a staple anymore, but the reason it works for us is that we have been here so long,” he says. “Nostalgia is important. Quality is important. We have dealt with the same meat vendors for a long time and we know we’re providing something we can put our name behind.”
Earning iconic status
Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen in Chicago is celebrating its 76th year in business, having opened its doors originally in 1942. Its biggest sellers are the pastrami and corned beef sandwiches and its beef stew.
“The secret to success is that we are fourth-generation ownership and someone from our family is literally here all the time to oversee that the quality remains top-notch,” says Dan Raskin, co-owner of the deli. “Our formulas stay the same and people know when they come in, they’re going to get the same thing they could have gotten 50 years ago.”
Because Chicago is a big melting pot, most of Manny’s customers are not primarily Jewish, and the deli regularly hosts those from diverse income groups, various professions and different ethnic backgrounds.
“I love hearing the multigenerational stories of our customers,” Raskin says. “A deli like this is important to the community as there’s a history and people love to talk about how long they’ve been coming and who they’ve come with. It makes you feel good about the business.”
Ronnie Dragoon, founder and owner of Ben’s Delicatessen, Restaurant & Caterers, with four locations in New York, opened his first shop in the city of Baldwin in 1972.
“Our secret is simple – keep your employees and customers happy,” he says.
The key to presenting an iconic deli atmosphere, Dragoon shares, is to always stay true to the deli’s roots and that is displayed in its slogan of “Keeping the Tradition Alive Since1972.”
“Yes, we have made some adjustments to continue to please our patrons as trends come and go, but, at the end of the day, we always stay true to our traditional kosher roots because they are extremely important to us and our customers,” he says. “We source our poultry from Empire, the premier Kosher poultry supplier in the world, and our beef from NorthlandKosher.”
Dragoon locates his restaurants mostly in shopping centers in affluent areas where there is a substantial Jewish population but also a market where the people are cosmopolitan. When he first opened 48 years ago, the customer profile was 85 percent Jewish; now, it is 60 percent.
Not every Jewish deli has a long history behind it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t cater to the specialty. Rosenfeld’s Jewish Deli has two locations in Ocean City, Maryland, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, five and three years old, respectively, but owner Warren Rosenfeld has fashioned them with the classic feel.
“I started downloading all the menus from different iconic delis all over the country seeing what they had in common and I put together an extensive menu and a feel of a traditional Jewish deli,” he says. “I wanted all the foods that everyone remembered and to put together something of a Jewish food museum and sell memories. These places are beloved.”
With the increasing cost of food, labor and rent, a long-time deli can find it challenging to continue operating at a profit in 2018.
“If you don’t own your property today, rents are going to go up and it’s going to cause some headaches,” Raskin says. “We purchased our property a long time ago and still have family members interested in continuing, so we’re going strong.”
Dragoon notes that while rising costs are a huge factor, he is also noticing a younger generation of more health-conscious restaurant-goers who may not consider delis as an ideal place to dine.
“We have recently expanded our menu to include more salads and health-conscious items to make sure we are appealing to all different crowds,” he says. “This decision has paid off because now there really is an option for everyone from traditional kosher favorites like Hot Corned Beef, Pastrami or Grilled Hanger Steak, to newer options like the Grilled Chicken and Avocado salad.”
Catering to millennials
Schmaltz Deli has been around for 14 years, located just outside of Chicago in Naperville, Illinois. Owner Howard Bender opened it with the idea of being more of a quick-service, modern-style Jewish deli that would appeal to the younger demographic.
“Everything about the concept of classic Jewish delis was big portions, and when your highest velocity food items are also your highest food cost items, it makes for a tough business,” he says. “We made our menu true to traditional Jewish delis, but instead of the style of sit-down and slower service, we offer a much faster pace. We think that’s a recipe forsurvival.”
The deli targets the white-collar community for lunch and Bender understands that millennials like nostalgia but not at the expense of time. A key to operations is partnering with delivery services such as Grubhub and Uber Eats. Schmaltz Deli has seen its delivery increase by 2,000 percent in just one year.