“Why don’t you open a deli like the ones in New York?”
I get asked this question all the time. And it’s a good one. I LOVE New York delis.
One of the first that comes to mind is RUSS & DAUGHTERS (“Appetizing since 1914”) down on Houston Street. This place is a delight. Originally catering primarily to newly arrived Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side, it thrives one hundred years later, selling great corned beef, pastrami, caviar, and all sorts of smoked fish.
I also love BARNEY GREENGRASS on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper East Side. Zagat gives it a 24 rating and notes that “they have been slinging old style Jewish food and gold standard smoked fish since 1908…they don’t take credit cards and the service borders on downright rudeness…but that’s part of the shtick.”
You gotta love KATZ’s DELICATESSEN, also on Houston on the Lower East Side, home to old-line Jewish staples with an emphasis on killer sandwiches. KATZ’s also has the dubious erotic distinction of being the site where Meg Ryan faked an Oscar-winning orgasm for Billy Crystal in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY.
So why haven’t I opened a deli of my own? And my answer is always the same: Because I don’t want to lose my shirt.
Not that delis are an inherently bad proposition. New York has some very good – and tremendously successful – ones. But there’s a reason why the best delis are all out east.
So why don’t I open a New York-style deli in the Twin Cities?
Again, because I don’t want to lose my shirt. Here’s why: New York delis are about high quality and scale, and big food, lots of protein, piled high. And my feeling is that although folks will not bat an eye paying $28 for a sandwich when on holiday in New York City, they just won’t pay that in Minnesota. After all, the delis I mentioned are “bucket list” stops. “I’m in New York and I’ve got to check the box…$28 for a sandwich? So what?”
Here in Minneapolis, I’d say that the threshold for a pastrami sandwich is about $12 – and that’s for a sandwich that’s nowhere near the New York deli experience. You get probably 6 ounces of so-so pastrami, not a pound. Even in Los Angeles, both the Stage Deli and the Carnegie failed.
The fact is, deli foods aren’t cheap. Good pastrami and corned beef cost a lot; there’s no two ways around it. And by and large, the only people who understand that and will pay for it are high-income New Yorkers, in particular Jewish ones, who are connoisseurs of deli fare. No place else in the country has the demographics to match New York, and that’s why no place else in the country has a critical mass of good delis. People just won’t pay what the delis have to charge.
After all, we have plenty of affluent people in Minnesota who can afford a $28 sandwich. But how many people here will actually pay for it? Maybe a few transplants from the East Coast.
I’m pretty confident about this because I really know delis. In fact, I used to run one. And not just any deli, but an outpost of the king of them all, the Carnegie Deli.
Years ago, sometime around 1991, Parasole managed a Carnegie Deli for about a year in Tysons Corner, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. In preparation for its opening, I actually trained at Carnegie’s New York flagship. In the basement, I might add. Not pleasant.
(And guess what? The Tysons Corner Carnegie Deli failed in about a year. Because even in the affluent suburbs of North Virginia, not enough people could stomach the prices.)
There’s an upside to delis’ geographic limitations: They make a trip to New York City that much more enjoyable. Our Parasole culinary folks have feasted more than once at the Carnegie. Tuan Nguyen and Tim McKee even managed to finish the “leaning tower” before them. Not so with Joanne. She didn’t make a dent in the Woody Allen “Broadway Danny Rose” (corned beef and pastrami on rye bread).
One thing I love about the Carnegie is the fun they have naming and creating sandwiches after their celebrity customers. Witness the creation named after basketball star Carmelo Anthony – corned beef, pastrami, salami (add some spice to the Knicks), with bacon (something the Knicks need to bring home), lettuce, tomato and Russian dressing packed between two slices of rye….$28.
Golden Age song and dance man Danny Kaye is on the menu here. The “Danny Kaye Club Sandwich” features corned beef, turkey, cole slaw and Russian dressing. There’s a photo on the wall showing his wife honoring her late husband here.
Henny Youngman lived a block from the Carnegie, and he gave “regular customer” new meaning. I have personally seen him in the restaurant at least half a dozen times, usually for breakfast. He always seemed to be eating lox, cream cheese, lettuce, capers and tomato on a toasted bagel.
Jerry Springer’s namesake sandwich, the “Jerry!! Jerry!! Jerry!!” is baloney (appropriate), Swiss cheese, corned beef, pastrami and Russian dressing, created in honor of his 300th show.
Yankee Derek Jeter has the “Triple Club” – turkey, bacon, American cheese, tomato and lettuce.
And last year, with the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, Carnegie featured the “If I Were a ‘Wich Man,” honoring the star, Tevye, the dairy man, with corned beef, brisket, Swiss cheese (because it’s holy), cole slaw and Miracle Whip on rye.
To be sure, the Carnegie isn’t just about sandwiches. Its desserts,
the chopped liver,
the potato pancakes,
matzoh ball soup,
are all best in class.
One last thing: the short-lived (and probably just as well) Tim Tebow sandwich – corned beef, pastrami, roast beef, American cheese, lettuce and tomato on WHITE BREAD. SACRILEGE!!!! (and, I’ll bet, “sacrilicious”).
Milton Berle once said…
RUSS & DAUGHTERS
19 E. Houston St
New York, NY 10002
854 7th Avenue
New York, NY 10019