June 26, 2019

Alan Canter, Owner of Canter’s Deli Dies at 82

Alan Canter of Canter’s deli in Los Angeles’ Fairfax district, who presided over its expansion and turned the restaurant and bakery into an L.A. mainstay, died Jan. 25 of natural causes.

His death was announced by the family on their Facebook page: “Our beloved owner, Alan Canter, has passed away at age 82,” the posting read. “He kept his family legacy alive and built an L.A. landmark. He worked 18-hour shifts and took pride in hand-cutting each fruit cup. He taught his children how to run this business just as his father taught him. We are deeply saddened by this loss.”

Canter’s father, Ben, along with his uncles Joe and Ruby, founded Canter Brothers Delicatessen in 1931 on Brooklyn Avenue (now Avenida Cesar Chavez) in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, then home to a large part of Los Angeles’ Jewish community. After World War II, they followed the community west, opening up a second deli, Canter’s Fairfax, on Fairfax Avenue between Beverly and Melrose in 1948, before settling into its current location at 419 North Fairfax in 1953. The restaurant expanded in 1959, and in 1961 Canter’s opened a bar, the Kibbitz Room, next door. 

In her book “America’s Great Delis,” author Sheryll Bellman called Canter’s “heaven for those who know and love the deli culture and appreciate all that it evokes.”

“He kept his family legacy alive and built an L.A. landmark. He worked 18-hour shifts and took pride in hand-cutting each fruit cup. He taught his children how to run this business just as his father taught him.“

One of the city’s first 24-hour restaurants, Canter’s Fairfax attracted a clientele of musicians and celebrities, and it remains a necessary stop for any politician looking to appeal to Los Angeles’ Jewish vote. The Kibbitz Room became a hangout for musicians, including Jim Morrison, Jackson Browne, Courtney Love and Bob Dylan’s son, Jakob, whose band, the Wallflowers, was formed and played their first shows there. 

Canter was born May 2, 1936, and after a stint as a mechanic started working in the family business at the Fairfax Avenue location. He packed pickles and made deliveries, and working his way up, he learned the in and outs of running the business. That attention to detail remained with him his entire life. In 2006, he told the Los Angeles Daily News, “You have real sour cream. Freshest chickens. Best-quality produce. Mayo that is extra heavy. You go for quality.” A 2001 Jewish Journal story described him arriving at the restaurant by 5 a.m., “picking out fruit for the breakfast plate.” 

Canter was a fixture at the deli, working alongside the staff and keeping up a steady conversation with the restaurant’s regular customers. His son Marc, who now runs the business, told the Los Angeles Times, “He always had a joke ready and got a good laugh out of everyone he encountered. When he wasn’t working, he was helping anyone who needed a hand. He loaned them money, he helped fix things, he always gave to everyone else before him.” The over 500 comments left on the deli’s Facebook page — many of them directed to Canter’s widow, Elizabeth — are testimony to the loyalty he inspired: “You helped my husband and I so much. I will never forget how good you were to us. You were a wonderful man”; “He was the nicest, most generous man”; “RIP and thanks for creating a very special place. If Canter’s ever closes then Los Angeles is officially dead.”

Canter was preceded in death by his son Gary, who died in December 2017. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Elizabeth; son Marc; daughter, Jacqueline Canter-Schnitman, and five grandchildren. Funeral services were held on Jan. 28.

In keeping with his father’s work ethic, Marc was on the job at the restaurant the day after Canter died. “He had a big heart and good work habits and good morals,” Marc told the Times. “He ran an institution with 150 employees, 24 hours a day, and made a good name for us. We’re a landmark and institution because of the hard years he put in.”