It was 25 degrees outside recently when I went to Katz’s Delicatessen on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to talk to fifth-generation owner Jake Dell. Despite the frigid temperatures and impending icy slush, throngs of customers were waiting in line to eat in New York’s only remaining heavy hitter in the delicatessen business.
Gone are the days when 2nd Avenue Deli was actually on Second Avenue, and Katz’s competed with other major players like Carnegie Deli. Yet, there isn’t a time that I’ve been to the restaurant that I haven’t seen Dell dutifully lurking around. Standing well over 6 feet tall in his blue Katz’s T-shirt, the fit and lanky Dell makes quite an impression, standing cross-armed like a bouncer outside the velvet ropes of a popular club.
Before I introduced myself, I watched as he presided over the cutters and chatted with the managers on the floor of the jam-packed restaurant. Then there was that smile. The word “disarming” was invented for that smile. It’s the unmistakable grin of a happy person who is more than thrilled to be exactly where he is. In this case, that means running an iconic New York landmark, just like his father and grandfather did, serving smoked meat the same way for almost 130 years.
Everywhere you look at Katz’s, placards and neon display the company slogan, a plea to “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army.” It’s a throwback to a time when three members of the Katz family were in the armed forces during World War II and they received meat from the folks back home.
Framed photographs adorn the walls, featuring everyone from Barack Obama to Frank Sinatra. There also are hats, sweatshirts, aprons, mugs and even an egg cream seltzer-scented candle with the Katz’s logo for sale.
Then there’s the old-fashioned ticket system. Upon entering the establishment, customers are handed a ticket and told by a doorman of sorts that they need to hold on to it at all costs lest they incur a $50 fine. Because some people don’t do as they are told and lose their tickets, Katz’s employees at times have to go rooting around in the garbage to help the customers find them.
Why do they still do this? “Because when you serve 4,000 people a day, you need a tried-and-true system,” Dell explained. “It’s a classic system, and you don’t see it anywhere else.”
It’s not celebrities or tourists Dell wants to please. The real pressure comes from pleasing his old-school New York customers.
The 30-year-old Dell prides himself on giving locals — and the tourists that consider Katz’s a bucket-list item — a true New York experience. At the turn of the 20th century, Katz’s was a meeting place for new immigrants who would congregate on Fridays for a franks and
Later, when Yiddish theaters lined Second Avenue, the restaurant was full of actors, singers and comedians. Quite a few iconic New York scenes have been filmed at Katz’s as well, the most famous of which was Meg Ryan’s hilarious “fake-gasm” scene in “When Harry Met Sally,” featuring director Rob Reiner’s real-life Jewish mother, proclaiming: “I’ll have what she’s having.”
But it’s not celebrities or tourists Dell wants to please. The real pressure comes from pleasing his old-school New York customers.
Imagine telling your Jewish family at age 21, after taking the Medical College Admission Test, that you’ve decided against medical school in favor of spending seven days a week at the deli so that you can check every tray of pastrami and corned beef that comes out of the smokers and look for just the right bounce and jiggle of the meat. That you are going to follow in the footsteps of the Katz family and the partners who came into the business later — your grandfather, uncle and father, who toiled in the same cutthroat industry and worked so hard that they probably aged well before their time.
That’s what Dell did, choosing to devote himself to the restaurant he grew up in — where he celebrated his birthday parties and bar mitzvah, worked every job from cleaner to cutter, and where some customers still remember when he was in diapers.
Somehow he understood that, although he could never re-create the “good old days” that New Yorkers are always going on and on about, he wanted to keep doing what he watched his family do his whole life — keep the traditions of our American-Jewish bubbes alive.
Dell understood that Katz’s is about a lot more than perfectly juicy, 4-inch-high pastrami sandwiches. It’s a living, breathing entity with a life all it’s own, with customers who for generations have been ordering meat platters for weddings and funerals and everything in between.
Dell told me that during the holiday season Katz’s makes 3,000 of its famous mini latkes a day and ships them all over the country — mostly to Los Angeles and Florida — through its online ordering system. It’s not an exaggeration, he added, to say the restaurant has people peeling potatoes 24/7 around Hanukkah time.
I told him that, in my experience, there is no appreciable difference between latkes made from peeled potatoes and those made from unpeeled potatoes. He looked at me and blinked, as if he hadn’t considered this before. I told him he could save a ton of time and manpower by skipping this step.
“Yeah, but the color wouldn’t be the same,” he said.
I told him the color wasn’t that different from the peel-on potatoes, and for a few seconds I thought I’d convinced him. I was already picking out the spot where I wanted my photo to go up on Katz’s wall.
Then he turned to me, with a very serious expression, and said, “They will never go for it.”
I didn’t get a chance to ask, but I assume he was talking about the family members and longtime customers to whom he feels he owes his only explanations. So, peel away forever, Katz’s — peel away forever.