NY Jewish delis kibitz, cajole and strategize through the crisis

The strategies they have initiated during the pandemic include beefed-up websites, designer distribution platforms and private labeling

THE 2ND AVE DELI has been operating a kosher kitchen since 1954.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE 2ND AVE DELI has been operating a kosher kitchen since 1954.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – Just because there is a pandemic is no reason to lose faith in getting your favorite Jewish deli treats, at least not in New York City. Here delis and appetizer shops have gone from pushcart to posh in a century, with nationwide shipping and new delivery platforms more de rigueur than a knish.
For sure, deli masters, mistresses and owners are all kvetching about New York City pandemic policies: openings, closings, outdoor eating in plastic igloos, curbside pickups or limits of 25% occupancy that do not even yield enough dough to pay for the electric bills. But these deli mavens know how to survive, thrive and adapt to a multitude of shifting restrictions with a borscht-belt sense of humor.
About to celebrate its 50th anniversary, Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant & Caterers distinguishes itself by its kosher kitchen and its seven locations: in Midtown on West 38th Street (once known as the garment district), with its trusty headquarters in Bayside, Queens, and on Long Island in Carle Place,  Greenvale, and Woodbury, in Scarsdale in Westchester and further afield in Boca Raton, Florida.
“We have revamped everything: our takeout and delivery orders have spiked to 75%-80% of our business compared to 40% in the past,” said Ben’s COO Tom Silverstein, adding that holiday packages and catering for special events have been downsized for small groups.
Curbside and front-door pickups prevail; Ben’s retrained its servers to become drivers and added phone staff. The pandemic, Silverstein said, forced the Ben’s team to be innovative. So rather than use a third-party online system, it created its own – I-360 Menu – which is about to be rolled out.
Ben’s partnered with United Way to donate food to 5,000 frontline workers; and when the governor of Florida suggested opening restaurants to 100% capacity, Ben’s held fast to 50% seating for the safety of all.
You can still order the “I’ll have what she’s having...” pastrami in the 1989 rom-com When Harry Met Sally at New York’s oldest deli: the iconic Katz’s Delicatessen, open since 1888, but you may be noshing on that sandwich in the comfort of your own home – at least for now.
Katz’s doors never closed during the crisis, doing what it has been doing for over a century: shipping, catering and delivering its famous pastrami and corned beef to shuttered and in-place customers across the country.
Before Hollywood, Katz’s World War II slogan was “Send a salami to your boy in the Army,” a prescient marketing line since “shipping across the country is way up and is now one of the primary pieces of business that we’d like to keep post-pandemic,” said marketing director Peter Carter.
Carter admits to trimming a bit of the fat by launching the deli’s own delivery platform rather than rely totally on third-party channels that have served well in good times also take a bite of the slim receipts this year.
Like Ben’s, Katz’s reached out to communities, suggesting to customers: “Buy a meal for a frontline worker or buy a soup for a senior.”
“From bagels to borsch to bialys to babka, we are a click away,” reads the marketing line for Barney Greengrass. It is self-described as “a small business with a big reputation,” so don’t expect to be bombarded with ads, pitches, texts, YouTube livestreams or banner ads crowding your Facebook page. All transactions are by phone or on-site shopping, with a minimum of outdoor seating.
This is the place where fish want to be smoked. Housed in its current location on the Upper West Side since 1929, the faded wallpaper and worn linoleum scream old-school Jewish eatery, even as the crowds change, and elderly regulars are joined by carefully cultivated blondes pushing thousand-dollar strollers.
Affectionately known as the Sturgeon King, Barney Greengrass has been sustaining itself on mail order: getting its products to where you get a craving – from vacation homes on Martha’s Vineyard to Hawaii, Alaska and the Hamptons.
The only strategy it has initiated during the pandemic is to beef up its website to welcome more commerce without any third-party applications in between.
Recently a customer called in: “I want four Nova Scotia sandwiches with cream cheese, tomato and extra, extra, extra onions....” Gary Greengrass, who was purportedly hatched from a salmon egg, replied, “Is that your version of social distancing”?
In the mood for the mountains of meat served on grainy rye? Run, don’t walk, to one of the only Jewish delis open 24/7: Sarge’s motto is “You’re hungry and we never close,” featuring the one and only Monster sandwich.
Okay, so you won’t be seeing the classic booths stuffed with suits or hipsters and clubby types who clamor for a repast way past midnight; you can still order The Monster, which shows you are a serious consumer.
Steve Thali, executive vice president at Sarge’s, said the dining room once composed half the business, and even when it was reopened at 25% capacity, the staff had to focus on boosting its online deals, presence, discounts and deliveries above 14th Street, below 14th Street, Long Island and, yes, nationwide.
Sarge’s has taken two unusual strategies: It set up a ghost kitchen on Vandam Street in Manhattan just for deliveries and pickup to capture the lower Manhattan market, and it set up its kitchens to prepare virtual multiple brands under one roof... without brick-and-mortar rents.
When the late Anthony Bourdain was out of the US away from home, the food he craved the most was Pastrami Queen’s pastrami on rye. You don’t get much bigger endorsements than that.
You could say Pastrami Queen is one of the upstarts at just 65 brazen years young, as, of all things, it opened a second location in the middle of a pandemic. And why is this? Because it can.
If its menu ushers in memories of simpler times like being a kid on the boardwalk and enjoying a hot Coney Island square knish, well, there is a reason for that: this was Pastrami King before it moved to Manhattan in 1998 from Queens and, before that, from Roebling Street in Williamsburg in 1956. It became Pastrami Queen in homage to the borough where it thrived for so long.
“The restaurant business is like Broadway. You are only as good as your last performance,” said David Zilenziger, general manager. Maybe not the best analogy right now, but this did not deter Pastrami Queen from opening its doors to its second location on 72nd Street & Broadway in the former Fine & Shapiro store.
Pastrami Queen has big plans: With the second venue, it has more kitchen and storage space, which allows it to create a commissary to feed other locations in the future.
To boost its revenue, Pastrami Queen has partnered with Gold Belly, which has introduced it and many other restaurants to a whole new type of delivery business model.
Call it a pastrami sandwich kit, and you have a new concept from Carnegie Deli, said CEO Sarri Harper. About to reopen this month at its new Madison Square Garden location, its wholesale and retail businesses, coupled with nationwide shipping directly to customers, have sustained this classic.
The key at Carnegie is collaboration: its deli menus are featured in restaurants throughout the country. Said Harper, “...One of our deli partners actually had an increase of 30% in deli with carrying our corned beef! We all wanted a slice of comfort food, and we were happy to deliver with our restaurant partners.”
The baby on the block is Gertie, set in hip Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It opened just before all hell broke loose, and it is sticking to its mission: to rewrite and redesign the restaurant business model.
Self-described as a Jewish-American luncheonette, it operates as a nonprofit community kitchen in partnership with Rethink Food and City Harvest.
Said co-owner Nate Adler, “Gertie believes in finding solutions that support the community, employees, and have an impact beyond the restaurant’s four walls.”
It is open four days a week. Brunch is a bustling event, so arrive early.
Think Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld when you bite into your next or your first pastrami at 2nd Ave Deli. Now with two locations, in Midtown and on the Upper East Side, it has been operating a kosher kitchen since 1954, and now features curbside pickup and in-store browsing and buying.
The short story behind the 2nd Ave Deli is that its patriarch, Abe Lebewohl, was murdered en route to the bank to make a deposit – that was the first mourning. The deli continued at its original Second Avenue location until 2006 when it closed due to a landlord dispute – that was the second mourning.
Abe’s nephews Josh and Jeremy, who grew up washing dishes, busing tables and making deliveries all their lives, took over. If you cannot get there, consider The 2nd Ave Deli Cookbook with hundreds of recipes for traditional Jewish meals.
A Bronx landmark, Liebman’s Deli is doing what it has done best since 1953 when there were about 100 Jewish delis in the borough: keeping a kosher kitchen, beefing up its catering and now adding a collaboration with Gold Belly.
Active on all social media platforms, young Yuval Dekel is now at the helm and could not stop sharing all the details for the Passover Packages built for small gatherings of four to six.
“Little did we realize that three years ago, when we started nationwide shipping, it would become such a critical part of our business,” said Dekel.