Tastes of the City: Zabar’s, a New York Culinary Staple

Tastes of the City: Zabar’s, a New York Culinary Staple

By Gabbie Reade

The smoked fish counter is where it all began. In the 1920’s, Louis Zabar and Lillian Teitlebaum came from the Ukraine to America, the land of opportunity. Like many other European Jews at the time, they brought their personal belongings, their language, and their culture with them to America. At the time, Louis lived in Brooklyn and opened a smoked fish counter in a farmer’s market stall. Louis and Lillian happened to be from the same town in Ukraine and married soon after Lillian’s arrival in New York City from Philadelphia. Louis and Lillian worked together at the smoked fish stall as Louis would sell the fish and Lillian would do the cooking ((“Zabar’s.” America Pink. America Pink. Web. 1 May 2016.)) – they were a strong team. Eventually, the couple had three children, named Saul, Stanley and Eli. However, they had another baby in 1934, when they opened a 22-foot-wide shop on the Upper West Side, which they named Zabar’s. ((“The Zabar’s Story.” The Zabar’s Story. Zabar’s and Company Inc. Web. 1 May 2016.))

The Early Years

LouisLillianZabar
Louis and Lillian Zabar in their early years

When Louis and Lillian Zabar took over half of a New York City block on 80th Street and Broadway, they originally only leased the smoked fish department of the Daitch Market. As time went on, they took over the entire market and eventually Zabar’s became their own. ((“Saul Zabar – The 2011-2012 Gatekeepers of History.” The 2011-2012 Gatekeepers of History. Preserve America, 2012. Web. 2 May 2016.))

Louis had a very simple business plan: he planned to “sell only the highest quality smoked fish at a fair price. He wanted his customers to trust him and he wanted them to become ‘regulars.'” ((“Biography.” Zabar’s Blog. Zabar’s and Company Inc. Web. 1 May 2016.)) Zabar’s sold many items that you could not find anywhere else. Originally their space started out as what is called an “appetizing shop,” which was an early version of a Kosher delicatessen. Their shop sold smoked and pickled fish and roasted coffee. This special interest in coffee expanded exponentially over time.

Their sons helped with the family business on the weekends in their young years, but unfortunately their father died at an early age in 1950. ((Wharton, Rachel. “A Lesson from Mr. Bean: Saul Zabar.” NY Daily News. NY Daily News, 31 May 2008. Web. 2 May 2016.)) When Louis passed away, Saul Zabar, a college dropout, helped out with the Zabar’s business, but truly never planned to stay for longer than a few years to help his mother keep the store on its feet. ((Pluenneke, Geraldine. “The Brothers Zabar | Edible Manhattan.” Edible Manhattan. Edible Manhattan, 29 May 2009. Web. 1 May 2016.))

zabars-1941

His brother, Eli, was far too young at age 7 to really help out with the business, but Stanley, upon his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania, decided to lend a hand and eventually, he and his brother Saul would become co-owners with their mother. ((“Saul Zabar – The 2011-2012 Gatekeepers of History.” The 2011-2012 Gatekeepers of History. Preserve America, 2012. Web. 2 May 2016.))

The Brothers’ Turn

Saul became in charge of everything happening in front-of-the-house of Zabar’s; he was the face of the company while his brother Stanley took care of everything else behind the scenes, financial and otherwise. ((Gray, Christopher. “Streetscapes/Zabar’s, Broadway Between 80th and 81st Street; As Its Horizons Widened, It Never Left Home.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2002. Web. 1 May 2016.)) It turns out both of them never did leave. Today, Saul serves as the President of Zabar’s while Stanley is the Vice-President and Chief Financial Officer.

Saul & Stanley Zabar at Zabar's
Saul & Stanley Zabar behind the counter at Zabar’s

In the 1970’s, the brothers sought to expand their physical presence. They bought another building on Broadway between 82nd and 83rd streets and expanded into the upper rooms above the original retail store. ((Gray, Christopher. “Streetscapes/Zabar’s, Broadway Between 80th and 81st Street; As Its Horizons Widened, It Never Left Home.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2002. Web. 11 May 2016.)) Their physical presence was almost astronomical, and everyone knew Zabar’s by name. Soon, people were coming to visit the store from not only New York City, but from all over the world.

Zabar’s Becomes a Household Name, but Continues to Expand

Saul and Stanley continued to grow their father’s empire with the help of a former stockman employee and Holocaust survivor named Murray Klein. He became a managing partner and bought Lillian Zabar out, holding a 1/3 stake in the Zabar’s brand. He played a large role in “transforming it from a modest deli into a venerable food emporium.” ((Chan, Sewell. “Remembering Murray Klein, 84, Former Co-Owner of Zabar’s.” City Room Remembering Murray Klein 84 Former Co-Owner of Zabars Comments. 6 Dec. 2007. Web. 31 Apr. 2016.))

Zabar's famous Handsliced Nova Salmon
Zabar’s famous Handsliced Nova Salmon

Klein oversaw the sales and retail departments of Zabar’s. With Kleins’s help, Zabar’s truly became a household name. He decided to start a housewares department at Zabar’s, where customers could find kitchen items, such as cookware sets, roasting pans, cooking tools, and other gourmet houseware items. Klein had a knack for taking risks in business and making sure they turned out well. He wanted the whole world to know about Zabar’s. To make this dream come true, he straddled both ends of the spectrum as he “brought trendy European cheeses to New York’s newly minted foodies while feeding borscht and pickled herring to Jewish celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen.” ((Moskin, Julia. “Murray Klein, Who Helped Build Zabar’s Into Food Destination, Dies at 84.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Dec. 2007. Web. 1 May 2016.)) Upon Klein’s death in 2007, he was fondly remembered by many for shaping Zabar’s into the famous, household name that people know of today. Steven Fass, a Zabar’s importer reminisced, “That one little Yiddishe store had an effect on the way people ate all over America, and it was really because of him.” ((Moskin, Julia. “Murray Klein, Who Helped Build Zabar’s Into Food Destination, Dies at 84.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Dec. 2007. Web. 1 May 2016.))

Saul Zabar with Zabar's coffee, which is roasted in-house.
Saul Zabar with Zabar’s coffee, which is roasted in-house.

Saul and Stanley became extremely interested in gourmet foods in the 70’s, an interest that would further Zabar’s success in the food world. Saul became extremely interested in gourmet coffee, and as a result, Zabar’s began roasting their own coffee in 1966. ((Settembre, Jeanette. “Zabar’s ‘Jewish Soul Food’ Turns 80.” NY Daily News. NY Daily News, 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 1 May 2016.))

They introduced America to sun-dried tomatoes and gnocchi and brought Brie and Camembert cheese to the states. In the 80’s, caviar was becoming a very popular item in the gourmet food world, in which Zabar’s played a large part. ((Arntzenius, Linda. “Zabar’s – What’s Not To Love? | Urban Agenda Magazine.” Urban Agenda Magazine. Witherspoon Media Group. Web. 1 May 2016.)) 

Zabar's Gourmet Food Selection Today
Zabar’s Gourmet Food Selection Today

As a result of their presence in the gourmet food world in New York City, Zabar’s actually started what was widely known as The Caviar Wars. Murray Klein played a large part in these Caviar Wars. He was known to sometimes get himself into trouble because of his competitive personality. Over the course of the Caviar Wars, he feuded with Macy’s on the price of their caviar. While Macy’s sold 14 ounces of the highest grade of caviar, beluga for $149, Klein sold the same item and amount for $139. The two stores continued to lower their prices for a period of time, and eventually, Klein won out by selling the caviar at a loss, continuing with his loss leader strategy which had served him well over the course of his time at Zabar’s. ((Chan, Sewell. “Remembering Murray Klein, 84, Former Co-Owner of Zabar’s.” City Room Remembering Murray Klein 84 Former CoOwner of Zabars Comments. 6 Dec. 2007. Web. 31 Apr. 2016.))

Eli Wants In

When Eli was old enough, he was ready to play a part in the family business. While going to school at Columbia during the day, he would work as Zabar’s night shift manager in the evenings. However, he wanted to play a bigger role and asked to be partners with his brothers in the company. His brothers said that being partners with them would take time – that he would have to earn his way to partnership. It didn’t take Eli long to be bored by waiting, as he was eager to jump right into the food business. ((Pluenneke, Geraldine. “The Brothers Zabar | Edible Manhattan.” Edible Manhattan. Edible Manhattan, 29 May 2009. Web. 3 May 2016.)) He wanted to play a bigger role and wanted to push Zabar’s in a new direction. ((Kelley, Tina. “A Lifetime Amid the Lox and Rugelach.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 May 2008. Web. 1 May 2016.)) In his impatience, Eli moved on from Zabar’s to work at a grocery wholesaler, and while in this position, gained an immense amount of experience and knowledge about the food industry.

Eli Zabar's enormously sucessful E.A.T. deli and restaurant on the Upper East Side.
Eli Zabar’s enormously sucessful E.A.T. deli and restaurant on the Upper East Side.

In 1973, he opened E.A.T. on the Upper East Side, an high-priced, upscale deli. Eli saw a great deal of success, and quickly opened other locations all over the East Side, including an outpost at Henri Bendel and Eli’s Manhattan. He now plays a large role in the historic Amagansett Farmers Market, which he re-opened with Peconic Land Trust in 2007. ((“Who’s Eli Zabar?” Who’s Eli Zabar? Eli Zabar. Web. 2 May 2016.)) An innovative thinker, Eli truly has a new idea for a project every day. He even has his own greenhouse that lives above his market, The Vinegar Factory, and grows his own produce. ((Gaffney, Adrienne. “Eli Zabar’s Recipe for the Perfect Summer Sandwich Is Fast, Easy and Full of Mayonnaise.” T Magazine. The New York Times Style Magazine. Web. 1 May 2016.))

Eli working in his "office" -- he doesn't technically have one. He drives a van to and from each of his culinary empire locations.
Eli working in his “office” — he doesn’t technically have one. He drives a van to and from each of his culinary empire locations.

Unlike his family’s business, he spares no expense – items at Eli’s stores would not follow Murray Klein’s rule of making the food accessible to everyone. Instead, Eli planned to stretch his customer’s pockets as far as they could possibly go. ((Pluenneke, Geraldine. “The Brothers Zabar | Edible Manhattan.” Edible Manhattan. Edible Manhattan, 29 May 2009. Web. 3 May 2016.)) Even though Eli broke off from the family business, the brothers fervently swear that there is no rivalry or bad blood. Saul has even called Eli the genius of the family. He said, “He did it all himself—the stores, the bakery. He can run an empire. I can only run this store.” It is clear that the family feeling still exists in Eli’s business. It has been said that Eli “inherited the ahead-of-his-time gene,” and just like his parents – and his brothers, too – each day he searches for a new opportunity and a unusual, fresh way to bring gourmet food to his consumers. ((Pluenneke, Geraldine. “The Brothers Zabar | Edible Manhattan.” Edible Manhattan. Edible Manhattan, 29 May 2009. Web. 3 May 2016.))

Zabar’s Today

The Zabar's Storefront Today
The Zabar’s Storefront Today

With over 20,000 square feet of space, customers are still incredibly loyal to the Zabar’s name – they have over “40,000 [customers] a week, spending $50 million a year on 800 varieties of cheeses, 400,000 pounds of coffee, nearly 300 different prepared foods made by a kitchen staff of 39.” ((Pluenneke, Geraldine. “The Brothers Zabar | Edible Manhattan.” Edible Manhattan. Edible Manhattan, 29 May 2009. Web. 3 May 2016.)) The basis for Zabar’s has nothing to do with how much money they are making. Everything is truly done the old-fashioned way, in the way of Louis Zabar. Keeping the tradition of their father strong, Saul and Stanley pride themselves on the fact that every Zabar’s item that can possibly be made in-house is made in-house. ((Settembre, Jeanette. “Zabar’s ‘Jewish Soul Food’ Turns 80.” NY Daily News. NY Daily News, 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 1 May 2016.)) 

They support each other, both as a family, and as a business. The Zabar’s employees love working there as much as the Zabars love having them in their lives: they are family. There have even been workers that have proposed marriage to each other in the fish department of the Zabar’s store.The Zabar family has been known to lend out more than $50,000 to help their employees pay for their children’s school tuition and new homes. ((Kelley, Tina. “A Lifetime Amid the Lox and Rugelach.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 May 2008. Web. 1 May 2016.))

Zabar's Bagels & Nova Brunch Box
Zabar’s Bagels & Nova Brunch Box

Their food is still the same, and you can still to this day find Saul and Stanley Zabar roaming the aisles of Zabar’s and the streets of New York. The idea of the family-run business is still very important to them, as their sons, daughters, cousins, and other family members mostly live in the Zabar’s neighborhood and work at the store. ((Gray, Christopher. “Streetscapes/Zabar’s, Broadway Between 80th and 81st Street; As Its Horizons Widened, It Never Left Home.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2002. Web. 11 May 2016.))

Their founder and their father’s values hold true today: “Respect the customer. Never, ever stint on quality. Offer fair value. And last but not least, keep searching for the new and wonderful” ((“The Zabar’s Story.” The Zabar’s Story. Zabar’s and Company Inc. Web. 1 May 2016.)) His goals and his integrity have paved the path for Zabar’s immense success over the past 80 years. In all its ups and downs – but really, mostly “ups” – and in their everyday search for the “new and wonderful,” it doesn’t look like Zabar’s is going anywhere anytime soon. 

Take a Trip to Visit the World-Famous Zabar’s

Don’t forget to try out Zabar’s for yourself. Visit them right here on the map on the Upper West Side at 2245 Broadway.

Bibliography

Arntzenius, Linda. “Zabar’s – What’s Not To Love? | Urban Agenda Magazine.” Urban Agenda Magazine. Witherspoon Media Group. Web. 1 May 2016.

Chan, Sewell. “Remembering Murray Klein, 84, Former Co-Owner of Zabar’s.” City Room Remembering Murray Klein 84 Former CoOwner of Zabars Comments. 6 Dec. 2007. Web. 31 Apr. 2016.

Ferretti, Fred. “OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! THE BATTLE OF CAVIAR PRICES.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Dec. 1983. Web. 1 May 2016.

Gaffney, Adrienne. “Eli Zabar’s Recipe for the Perfect Summer Sandwich Is Fast, Easy and Full of Mayonnaise.” T Magazine. The New York Times Style Magazine. Web. 1 May 2016.

Gray, Christopher. “Streetscapes/Zabar’s, Broadway Between 80th and 81st Street; As Its Horizons Widened, It Never Left Home.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2002. Web. 11 May 2016.

Katz, Susan. Zabar’s Deli Book. New York: Hawthorn, 1979. Print.

Kelley, Tina. “A Lifetime Amid the Lox and Rugelach.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 May 2008. Web. 1 May 2016.

Levine, Ed. New York Eats (More): The Food Shopper’s Guide To The Freshest Ingredients, The Best Take-Out & Baked Goods, & The Most Unusual Marketplaces In All Of New York. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997. Print.

Moskin, Julia. “Murray Klein, Who Helped Build Zabar’s Into Food Destination, Dies at 84.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Dec. 2007. Web. 1 May 2016.

Pluenneke, Geraldine. “The Brothers Zabar | Edible Manhattan.” Edible Manhattan. Edible Manhattan, 29 May 2009. Web. 3 May 2016.

Ryan, Tom. “The Legacy of Zabar’s Murray Klein.” RetailWire Discussion. RetailWire, 14 Dec. 2007. Web. 1 May 2016.

Settembre, Jeanette. “Zabar’s ‘Jewish Soul Food’ Turns 80.” NY Daily News. NY Daily News, 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 1 May 2016.

Smith, Andrew F. Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City. New York: OUP USA, 2016. Print.

Swarns, Rachel L. “The Deli Business Is Still in His Bones, Two Decades Into Retirement.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 Oct. 2014. Web. 2 May 2016.

“Saul Zabar – The 2011-2012 Gatekeepers of History.” The 2011-2012 Gatekeepers of History. Preserve America, 2012. Web. 2 May 2016.

“The Zabar’s Story.” The Zabar’s Story. Zabar’s and Company Inc. Web. 1 May 2016.

Wharton, Rachel. “A Lesson from Mr. Bean: Saul Zabar.” NY Daily News. NY Daily News, 31 May 2008. Web. 1 May 2016.

“Who’s Eli Zabar?” Who’s Eli Zabar? Eli Zabar. Web. 2 May 2016.

“Biography.” Zabar’s Blog. Zabar’s and Company Inc. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Further Reading

Katz, Susan. Zabar’s Deli Book. New York: Hawthorn, 1979. Print.

Levine, Ed. New York Eats (More): The Food Shopper’s Guide To The Freshest Ingredients, The Best Take-Out & Baked Goods, & The Most Unusual Marketplaces In All Of New York. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997. Print.

Smith, Andrew F. Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City. New York: OUP USA, 2016. Print.

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