March 18, 2019

Continuing Alan Canter’s Legacy

It’s mid-morning on a Thursday at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax Avenue — nearly two weeks after the death of its patriarch, Alan Canter — and the place is packed, as usual. Just inside the front doors, bakery goods are stacked high in glass display cases, aromas of fresh corned beef and rye bread are in the air, and people are milling about — paying their bills, waiting for tables and picking up takeout orders. 

Alan Canter died Jan. 25 at the age of 82, but the family-owned deli didn’t lose a beat, running like the well-oiled machine he helped create. The impression one gets amid the bustle and din is that the Canter family and the restaurant’s staff and customers decided to honor his legacy by continuing to schmooze and nosh in his home away from home. 

Immediately following Alan’s death, his son Marc, a part-owner of Canter’s, returned to work because, he said, “Somebody had to be there. I haven’t really dove into it, but it’s starting to affect me,” he said. “You know there’s a circle of life but you are never really quite ready for it. … It’s an emptiness, that’s what it is.” 

It’s hard to find part of the Canter’s operation that wasn’t influenced by Alan. He hand-picked and cut the fruit for the fruit cups; he taught Marc and his staff how to make famous sandwiches like the Canter’s Fairfax (corned beef and pastrami piled high on rye) and the Buck Benny (grilled knockwurst and sauerkraut on a challah bun); and he showed the bakers how to hand-dip cookies in chocolate so they looked and tasted just right. 

Alan also maintained the Fairfax location’s retro-style dining room, with its Jetsons-like light fixtures and booths, and the articles displayed around the restaurant touting moments in the deli’s history. He used his mechanic’s background to fix and replace equipment and his charm to make people feel at home.  

In the kitchen, sheets of Manischewitz matzo are being broken every five minutes for another order of Canter’s classic matzo brei. Asked how many matzo breis are made daily, a chef replies: “Don’t ask.”  

“What’s really hard is trying to leave without buying something. You have the deli on the left and the bakery on the right. You go, ‘Well, wait a minute, I won’t be here for a few days, what do I want?’ ” — Bob Sherman

Alan’s daughter Jacqueline, who also runs Canter’s, says it’s become “a place for hipsters and bubbes.” The deli wasn’t just Alan’s home, it was his children’s home — a place where Jacqueline ate lunch every day, sat behind the cash register and pretended to be a clerk, explored the delicatessen and, most importantly, spent time with her dad. 

“He was so hardworking. He took pride in everything he did,” she said. “Once, he didn’t come home for three straight days because the refrigerator broke, so he and my brother were here trying to fix it.” 

Marc said when he’s running around he sometimes forgets that his dad isn’t there waiting for him to sit and eat lunch at their favorite table. Still, he said, “I feel like he’s with me. I feel like he is watching, and he’s here.”

Like their father, Jacqueline and Marc are friendly with every customer. At one point, Jacqueline stopped to sing Happy Birthday to a regular, whom she surprised with a black-and-white cookie on the house. Even while taking a moment to answer a reporter’s questions, if they heard their names called, the siblings went off to assist.

One of their customers, Bob Sherman, said he has had a love affair with Canter’s for decades, romanced by their homemade pickles, beef tongue (pickled or roasted), pastrami and potato salad.

“My first recollection was when my mom brought me here for lunch and I would have a Buck Benny,” Sherman said. “What’s really hard is trying to leave the place without buying something to go. You have the deli on the left and the bakery on the right. You go, ‘Well, wait a minute, I won’t be here for a few days, what do I want?’ I’m a diabetic so I have to be careful. But forget it, I’m gonna have the Danish and enjoy it.” 

Whether it’s 9 a.m. or 3:30 p.m., Canter’s doesn’t seem to have much of a lull. Although the restaurant isn’t kosher, its Jewish spirit is palpable, particularly with the phrase “L’Dor V’Dor” (from generation to generation) metaphorically written on the walls. 

For more than eight decades the deli has continued to thrive, thanks to four generations of Canters. Marc said Alan used to pester his own father with suggestions like making the switch from a Kaiser roll to a hamburger bun or adding a tomato slice rather than a clunky tomato wedge on the burgers.  

“When I got here, I pestered my dad,” Marc said. “Young minds are good. My dad said, ‘OK, you’re gonna go behind the deli. Don’t make changes. Just wait and see and we’ll talk about them.’ But then I just went in and started changing things. Hopefully, it will happen in the generations to come.”  

It already has. 

With the help of Marc’s 26-year-old son Alex, the extensive menu now includes gluten-free and vegetarian options. Alex also has created an app to improve online ordering. Since the app launched, Canter’s has been feeding more than 1,000 customers daily who don’t even set foot in the deli. Alex also has weekly phone calls with Marc, where he offers more ideas to help the business succeed.  

“He’s pestering me just like I pestered my dad,” Marc joked.

The family knows how to continue Alan’s legacy because they saw he loved what he did.

“He was the happiest when this place was running like a well-oiled machine,” Marc said. “He actually said to me on several occasions, ‘Now I can die in peace,’ because a couple of issues I solved without him. He wasn’t allowed to die when he was the only one that could solve some of these issues. It’s the highest compliment you can get from a parent.”