This is a busman’s holiday for Ziggy Gruber. The round-faced restaurateur from Houston (Texas, not Street), is sitting in Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant, an enormous and bustling kosher deli near Times Square, talking Jewish food and chatting about his movie debut in the new documentary film “Deli Man.”
As the film, directed by Erik Greenberg Anjou, entertainingly shows, these are troubled times for the Jewish deli as an institution and as a working business. (“Deli Man,” which is currently playing in the New York Jewish Film Festival, will open theatrically on Feb. 27.) Gruber’s place, Kenny and Ziggy’s, is doing quite well, thank you, but the era in which New York City alone hosted some 1,500 delis is ancient history. There are approximately 150 Jewish delis in North America today.
“That was a different time,” Gruber says with a sigh. “It has been a process of attrition.”
He attributes the disappearance of the deli to numerous factors. The demographic shifts in the Jewish population have certainly affected the location of the restaurants, but one of the prime culprits, ironically, has been the success with which Jewish-Americans have become a part of the mainstream culture. The changing understanding of what constitutes “healthy” eating has hurt the delicatessen world, but the passage of time is an underrated factor.
“Most of the delis are owned by older people,” Gruber says. He’s a fourth-generation deli man himself. “It is a family-driven business.”
But if you push your kids to become doctors and lawyers, they won’t want or need to work the 90-hour week of a restaurateur.
Economic realities have worked against the deli, too, he notes.
“Rents go up and if you don’t own your own real estate, that will kill you,” Gruber says. “And it’s expensive to build a new deli from scratch; you’re looking at $1.5 million, $2 million, maybe even more.”
He adds, “Overheads keep going up, too. Food prices have risen at least 30 percent every single year in the last three years.”
The deli faces some obstacles that don’t have the same impact on purveyors of other cuisines.
“There’s a shortage of pastrami and brisket,” Gruber says. “We’ve had a serious [problem with] drought and there has been a lack of cattle production. The cattle market has changed, with the U.S. exporting 30 to 40 percent of its beef to Asia. It’s ending up as shabu-shabu instead of pastrami.”
There is one unexpected benefit of the thinning out of the deli herd: an atmosphere of fraternal feeling and cooperation between the surviving restaurants.
“There’s a problem getting pastrami,” says David Czegledi, the assistant general manager at Ben’s. “Our normal suppliers have been having trouble getting it; we borrowed from the Second Avenue Deli.”
Czegledi readily acknowledges that when there were “delis every two feet” in Manhattan, that kind of cooperation would not have been possible.
Ziggy Gruber, who grew up in the New York deli world, agrees.
“It was cutthroat back then,” he recalls. “Now you don’t have everybody on top of each other.”
Gruber is not pessimistic about the future of the deli.
“Just because things are different doesn’t mean there’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “You have to be innovative, you have to appeal to a multigenerational clientele. If you run the business right, you will prosper.”