The Continuing Decline of the Kosher Delicatessen: Why?

t was late at night in Brooklyn years ago when I still lived there; and from my radio, Dick Summer was extolling the virtues in great detail of the fare which can be enjoyed at a typical Kosher delicatessen: the delectable and unmistakably smoky flavor of pastrami; the incredibly spicy jolt of real brown delicatessen mustard; the crunchy and potent zing of a real sour pickle; the warm and inviting comfort of a matzoh ball soup with noodles in a rich chicken broth; and the full flavor of a dense potato knish — all chased by a generous swig of the elixir known as Dr. Brown’s cream soda.

My mouth was watering as I was listening to the nirvana enriched by the smooth voice of Dick Summer; but even though all of the Kosher delicatessens near where I lived at the time were closed at that moment, I knew that I could always walk to one the next day to satisfy that seemingly insatiable craving of overdosing on that salty and savory goodness.

I remember introducing my girlfriend at the time to the Kosher delicatessen experience. She had never sampled a pastrami sandwich simply because she did not like rye bread or brown mustard — and probably would not like pastrami. After overcoming her trepidation, a simple taste quickly turned into a devouring of the sandwich.

She had found a new food to list amongst her favorites.

Since I moved from Brooklyn, authentic Kosher and Kosher-style delicatessen food has been incredibly difficult to come by for me; and I had been on a search of the best Kosher and Kosher-style delicatessens outside of New York whenever I travel. A pastrami sandwich at one place in Atlanta was little more than a salty yet bland and cold monstrosity on soggy ersatz rye bread; while there are some places in south Florida that would suffice but never substitute the real thing…

…which is why while I was researching places to eat during my recent trip to Indianapolis, I was surprised to find a Kosher-style delicatessen called Shapiro’s Delicatessen and bakery, of which I posted a review — and being originally from New York, I cannot resist any opportunity to enjoy a pastrami sandwich on rye bread slathered with real deli mustard with pickles on the side…

…but during my research, I found a link to an article posted at the official Internet web site of Shapiro’s Delicatessen and bakery written by Rick Nelson of The Star Tribune called A deli’s demise: Q&A with Rye Deli owner David Weinstein, which lamented about how Rye Deli — supposedly another one of the top ten delicatessens in America which prepared its food from scratch — has permanently closed its doors.

I reported that the legendary Stage Deli in New York shuttered its doors after 75 years in business in this article on February 1, 2013: “It was an empty victory for rival Carnegie Deli, which competed for decades with Stage Deli only half a city block away for customers hungry for overstuffed corned beef and pastrami sandwiches and other Kosher-style fare. Stage Deli — known for naming its sandwiches after celebrities — is the latest amongst a spate of delicatessens to close in New York. Although there are a number of choices still available in New York pertaining to both authentic Kosher and Kosher-style delicatessens where you can satisfy your craving of a week’s worth of meat piled high between two slices of rye bread and slathered with spicy brown mustard, the traditional delicatessen in New York appears to be slowly vanishing.”

By the way, in that article, I reported that I had just found out that Ed Koch — the former mayor of New York, whom I had met in person more than once — died earlier that day. Coincidentally, I just found out that Mario Cuomo — the former governor of New York, whom I had also met in person — died on Thursday, January 1, 2015. May they both rest in peace — but I digress, as usual.

New York also almost permanently lost Second Avenue Deli due to real estate issues; but people rejoiced when learning of the announcement back in August of 2007 that that Kosher delicatessen would once again open — albeit not on Second Avenue.

It is not only New York which is losing these venerable institutions: according to one video which was posted on YouTube but is apparently no longer available, there were approximately 1,550 Kosher delicatessens in the five boroughs of New York in 1931.  Sadly, there are only 150 Kosher delicatessens currently remaining in all of North America, with approximately two dozen of those in New York. This article written by Tiffany Hsu of the Los Angeles Times lists some of the Kosher and Kosher-style delicatessens which have permanently closed not only in the Los Angeles area, but also in cities such as Chicago.

What happened?

Reasons and Factors

“High cost of beef certainly is hitting all of us hard”, wrote a person only identified as “Sally” in this article representing Shapiro’s Delicatessen and bakery. “Beef prices in the US have risen 24% in 2014. It’s the highest price since the 1980s. The drought in California and Texas will bring a rise to our produce as the summer goes forward.”

Another reason could be the change in the clientele, according to this article written by Joan Nathan of The New York Times back in October of 2009 — suggesting not only that this trend did not start recently; but it had already been going on for years back then.

Perhaps a contributing factor is how the food is prepared. From that same article: “In the old days, everybody cured their own corned beef and pastrami, made their own pickles, and used bread from a neighboring bakery. Now, few even make their own matzo balls.”

Earlier in this article, I alluded to the fact that delicatessen food can be quite salty. It can also be fatty and even fried in some cases — not exactly the criteria which would deem the food healthy, which could lead former patrons to avoid eating it…

…which could lead to hungry people seeking other choices and options, according to the aforementioned article in the Los Angeles Times. Competition in the restaurant business is as fierce as it has ever been; and with the proliferation of television programs pertaining to food — such as from Food Network, for example — more attention and scrutiny seems to have been placed on such factors as quality, sourcing, diet and ingredients while increasing awareness of how food is handled and prepared. Consequently, Kosher and Kosher-style delicatessens have been broadening their menu options in the hope of extending their survival.

Price could be a factor for a declining customer base as well. If you want a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Deli in New York — arguably the best pastrami you can buy — be prepared to pay approximately $20.00 for the privilege; and if you want that pastrami extra lean, fork over another couple of dollars. Side dishes will lighten your wallet or pocketbook even further. One of the men behind the counter imparted a secret to me: order the pastrami by the pound and get the bread, mustard and pickles on the side — especially if you are going to carry it out instead of eat it on the premises.

Kashrut — the set of dietarily laws for Jewish people who practice keeping Kosher — could be another factor. Ben’s Deli in New York is Kosher-style and not Kosher — they are open for business during the day on Saturdays, which is the reason one person I know would not eat there when we attended this gathering of FlyerTalk members there a couple of years ago. I do not have definitive information at this time; but I would suspect that the number of people who keep Kosher has been dwindling over the years. If I am wrong, please correct me.

Summary

I had once thought that the Kosher delicatessen was in a similar situation as the bialy: relatively undiscovered where perhaps there was room for a chain of Kosher restaurants to be opened throughout the United States and the rest of the world for people of all races, religions, genders and ages can enjoy — although the bialy is reportedly starting to finally follow the popularity of the bagel in its footsteps; while the Kosher delicatessen furthers its decline.

Hopefully, the Kosher delicatessen will rebound one day as well as part of a revival — instead of merely survival — and there is a glimmer of hope: there is the possibility that Ben’s Deli will expand to locations outside of New York, according to this article written by Lisa Fickenscher of Crain’s New York Business — but tradition may need to give way in order for that to happen, sadly or not.

Ess gazinta heit…

Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

11 thoughts on “The Continuing Decline of the Kosher Delicatessen: Why?”

  1. Elena-MuslimTravelGirl says:

    I totally know the feeling as someone who can’t even find this stuff in the Halal manner. Good at east I eat Kosher :). I do hope they revive it because it is sad that some delicious meals/ snacks can just disappear. Prices are driving everything to be super processed and unhealthy.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I understand that Halal and Kosher dietary laws are quite similar, Elena; but I suspect that you are correct about the unfortunate power of high prices…

  2. Jeremy says:

    Good write up – As I sit here eating m Bialy from Kossars Bialy’s the only real Bialy bakery left in NY.. But I digress – I used to live up the block from Ben’s – It was run by some old Jewish men who took pride in curing the beef and making those great sandwiches- Then Ben went to the “lets get the cheapest labor we can find” model – getting rid of the deli exports and hiring illegals.. Then they stopped curing their own meat and just buying Hebrew National – Their quality went down and the majority of their stores went under.

    One of the issues is that nobody appreciates a Kosher deli – Nobody understands what a good Corned Beef on Rye is…There is a Kosher Style deli inn Connecticut on the way to NYC off the highway called “Reins Deli” – People swear by it – Its lousy… Fatty meat.. Yet they do a crazy business.. Why I have no idea..I miss the old days when corned beef was not prepackaged by Hebrew National

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Kossars is not the only real bialy bakery left in New York, Jeremy. Bagels by Bell has been my favorite baker of bialys for years; and they are also a supplier of bialys to establishments within the greater New York City area:

      http://www.bialy.com

  3. Dave says:

    Brian, not only are the number of people (and not all Jewish) keeping kosher increasing, but so are the number of kosher products available to meet that demand. Total kosher sales in 1960 represented 10% of total kosher food sales in 2010, according to the Kosher Advisory Service. Kosher products generated $17 billion in sales in 2013. There are 3,400 companies that are certified with the Orthodox Union, one of the largest organizations that grants kosher certification, and there are 70,000 products in grocery stores that are kosher, up from 3,000 in 1970, according to the Kosher Advisory Service.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Thank you for that information, Dave. I greatly appreciate it.

  4. charles says:

    I will put forth several tidbits of information that are valid to the best of my knowlege.
    1, I believe more people keep Kosher today than years ago. This is based on increased number of Observant Jews in major cities as well as increased numbers of those that observe a moslem diet and need to avoid porcine origin.

    2, There are diet changes in this world. There are very few that will argue that a deli sandwich is very healthy. It might be OK once in a while but that argument hurts volume of sales.

    3, Costs are skyrocketing, based on space, ingredients and skilled people that know what a deli sandwich really is.. Charging more reaches a diminishing returns issue; less people will order. Rent costs the most in just those areas that are most likely to have potential deli expert eaters and potential converts to the club. (pun intended)

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I believe it was the cost of rent that was the issue with Second Avenue Deli, charles.

      I also agree with your statement that “Charging more reaches a diminishing returns issue; less people will order.” Could we not cite a similar argument for the current state of frequent travel loyalty program miles and points?

      Thank you for posting your thoughts.

      1. Dave says:

        It was definitely rent. The original owner was Abie Lobewohl and for some reason he never bought the building, even though he had the opportunity more than once. Abie and my aunt – who lived in the building a few door down – were long time friends and she told me about this. After Abie’s unfortunate murder in 1996 his brother Jack took over. Jack moved the deli to Murray Hill in 2006. Jack’s son Jeremy runs it now.

        I started eating at 2nd Ave. deli over 50 years ago when I was no more than 5 or 6, when my family lived in lower Manhattan. The food used to be outstanding but Jack was no Abie and Jeremy certainly isn’t; the food today doesn’t hold a candle compared to what it used to be in terms of quality.

  5. Robert says:

    Brian, come on down to DelBocaVista, plenty of great cheap delis here. I can count six within one mile.

  6. Jonathan Wolman says:

    Brian,
    Your story makes my mouth water for what was a great experience at Katz’s the one time I had the fortune to go their during my younger travels. I’ve always wondered about opening an authentic kosher deli in a place where none exist, and making a go of it for those wanting authenticity and quality. It would be far better to just frequent one if it was locally available, rather than be in the business, since we all know that the restaurant business is quite a dangerous one to enter based on the number that fail in their first few years. Perhaps, with many non-Jewish folk interested in the authenticity, nostalgia, great food, and substitute for Halal food, some entrepreneurs might consider starting up some new Delis in the future. I for one would frequent them if they were available in a nearby town.

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