Let’s face it: Classic Jewish deli and appetizing shops are having a moment. According to Bon Appetit, “the old school deli is the newest hot girl hangout,” while an exhibit on Jewish delis at the New-York Historical Society continues to draw crowds. These days, we’re basically all Estelle Reiner and we want to have what Sally Albright is having.
In recent years, a whole new crop of appetizing stores and delis have popped up in New York, with even Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) from “Succession” getting into the business: He’s an investor in the newish Jewish lunch counter S&P. And while some of these establishments, like Edith’s Sandwich Counter, seek to bridge the gap between an older generation and a new one, the year-old Simply Nova in East Williamsburg is all about harkening back to the days of yore.
From their tagline (“A taste of nostalgia”) to their classic deli boards, Simply Nova hopes to transport their clientele to the past.
According to Sean Brownlee, co-owner of Simply Nova, their emphasis on nostalgia is having the intended effect. “When people come in, the first thing they say is, ‘This reminds me of my childhood,’” Brownlee, 25, told the New York Jewish Week. “And that’s a really good, good feeling to know that we bring old memories — old, good memories — to people.”
The menu’s old-school offerings certainly help, too: Simply Nova boasts everything you’d want from an appetizing store and more — including, but certainly not limited to, bagels and all of the requisite fixings, pastrami and roast beef sandwiches, chopped liver, herring, matzah ball soup, latkes and a bakery corner featuring babka, rugelach, macaroons and black and white cookies. Simply Nova has scores of lox options on offer, like a pastrami cured salmon, beet gravlax and an Icelandic salmon of which Simply Nova is New York City’s exclusive purveyor. (My favorite is the classic Eastern Nova Scotia.) And yes, gluten-free bagels and dairy-free cream cheese are available as well.
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Brownlee first met co-owner Felix Placencia, 52, when they worked together at a few other New York City appetizing stores. (Brownlee and Placencia declined to name those shops, though this Instagram post indicates they both had worked at Russ & Daughters.) They realized that with their combined experience and passion, they could go into business for themselves.
Brownlee has spent his entire seven-year career at appetizing shops, Placencia has 26 years devoted to the same. But perhaps just as important as work history was the shared conclusion that there was something missing from their previous places of employment: an emphasis on service.
“We wanted to create a more close relationship with the customers and bring nostalgic spirits to them, especially neighborhoods like these, where they don’t have that close relationships with those businesses out there,” Brownlee said. He estimates that their clientele is about evenly divided across generational lines, with approximately 45% of them Jewish.
“These days there is not many truly neighborhood store[s] where people go and it’s ‘their’ store, where they can go every week or every day if they desire to, and feel comfortable,” Brownlee said, estimating that 80% of their clientele are repeat customers.
“We believe that the first experience of the food is the service,” he added. “So if you come to a place that doesn’t give you that first impression of customer service, even though the food is great, you’re not going to taste it.”
Brownlee and Placencia are both of Dominican heritage, and although neither is Jewish, their time working in appetizing stores has instilled in them a deep love of traditional appetizing foods. “I felt very connected to it,” Placencia said, both of the cuisine and the process of making it.
Brownlee said that at Simply Nova, they work to cater to their customers’ individual needs (pun somewhat intended). Brownlee said Simply Nova recently catered a wedding at Gracie Mansion. Although they typically prepare their platters in-house and drop them off, the customer requested staff prep on site, and so their wish was granted.
Nostalgia between Graham and Humboldt
Simply Nova’s predilection for the past also stands in contrast with its neighborhood. Nestled on Metropolitan Avenue between Graham Avenue and Humboldt Street, Simply Nova is on a block where a giant luxury apartment building replaced a beloved White Castle, and where many of the local establishments seem to be more interested in chasing trends than serving their customers. Simply Nova is a departure from some of the neighborhood’s other, trendier fare — as well as its many coffee shops and bars.
“Many customers always say, ‘This is so good, we needed a place like this in the neighborhood,’” Placencia said.
When the partners were looking a location, Brownlee, who lives in the area, happened to know the landlord of the building that previously housed The Bagel Store — famous for creating the rainbow bagel — which closed its Williamsburg doors in the summer of 2019.
“It was perfect,” Brownlee said.
Just last month, Simply Nova celebrated its one-year anniversary. And Brownlee and Placencia, a Bronx resident, couldn’t be happier with how their business has evolved. Instead of relying on advertising, their customer base has built by word of mouth — exactly as they’d hoped it would.
“We’ve always wanted to build a place that grows slowly by customers who really trust us, and that fulfills us, knowing those people keep coming back,” Brownlee said, adding that their customers come from all over the city.
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Now, Brownlee and Placencia are looking to the future. “We’re already planning to expand,” Brownlee said, sharing that they’re hoping to open a second location later this year.
Brownlee expressed how important it is to provide their Jewish customers with an authentic experience to connect them with their heritage. “I feel that this food is very special,” he said. “Many different cultures, or countries, they have their type of food, and it’s easy for people to find it. It’s not so easy for people who grew up with this kind of food to find it.”
While there has been a surge of appetizing shops in Brooklyn and Manhattan over the last decade or so, this wasn’t always the case — particularly when you consider how bountiful appetizing shops once were in New York City. When Shelsky’s Cobble Hill location opened in 2011, it was the first new appetizing store in Brooklyn in 60 years.
Brownlee insists appetizing stores can and should be for everyone. “Anybody who loves food, and loves lox or good soup or good bagel — they could come and enjoy [it] if it’s presented to them the right way,” he said. “They don’t necessarily have to know about the food.”