Are Delis Doomed? Berkeley Summit Decides

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Are classic New York-style delis — for lack of a less ethnic term, "Jewish delis" — going extinct?

Are sustainability measures and skyrocketing food prices eclipsing Jewish-deli traditions, and must deli fans — if they want to keep delis around at all — be open to change? But isn't change the mortal enemy of tradition?

A public "Deli Summit" is set for May 19 at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, featuring representatives from East Bay Express Best of the East Bay winner Saul's Deli and Restaurant, Brooklyn's Mile End Deli, Portland, Oregon's Kenny + Zuke's, and San Francisco pop-up Wise Sons Deli. Cookbook author Joan Nathan will moderate.

Calling their event a potential "putsch," the event's planners ask in a press release:

"What do these departures from the Deli Institutions look like on the menu, on the plate, in the dining room? What exactly are the Delis asking their customers to accept? ...

"What do the Delis feel is necessary to be environmentally, economically, and culturally sustainable? Charging for (artisanal) pickles instead of throwing away 'free' industrial ones? Three-to-six-ounce sandwiches instead of the 'minimum half-pound'?

"Is the pastrami sandwich putting the deli out of business? ... Towering pastrami is a loss leader, an unfortunate intersection of high labor and food costs and 'sandwich' cost expectations. ...

"Who is the authority on Deli? Yelpers? Deli Mavens? Deli owners? Like it or not, this is the popular conversation around Deli. These Delis are in solidarity in defining Deli going forward: This is their Deli, too."

The May 19 event is a followup to last year's Referendum on the Jewish Deli Menu, also held in Berkeley, where Michael Pollan was among the panelists.

"If I can pay the same price for a smaller sandwich with better and more sustainable meat, I'm happy doing that. Obviously, some people are not," said 2010 panelist Gil Friend, CEO of the green consulting firm Natural Logic.

At last year's referendum, Saul's co-owner Peter Levitt pointed out that pastrami sandwiches are made using "a cut of meat that is far more difficult to get to your plate than a steak, yet you only want to pay $10 for it. Delis exist in the real world of real estate, and you can't make money selling pastrami sandwiches that are towering."

Pastrami sandwich served at Harolds New York Deli in Edison, NJ.
  • Pastrami sandwich served at Harold's New York Deli in Edison, NJ.

Last year's panelists declared towering pastrami sandwiches such as the one depicted here "obscene."

What will they suggest this year — vegetarian kishka and soy-milk egg creams? Wait, those already exist.

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