The Rise & Fall Of The Jewish Deli

The closing of the famous Stage Deli in New York City is sad to those who value Jewish ethnic food. It also points to an important business lesson.

The Stage Deli, along with its neighbor, the Carnegie Deli, were really the places that brought deli into the mainstream of American culture, and in so doing helped Americanize the great masses of Eastern European Jews who came to the country at the turn of the 19th century. The deli and Jewish food became mixed in with Jewish comedy and the Yiddish language itself, as it all melted into the broader American culture.

In 1930, there were 1,550 kosher delis in New York City. Today there are perhaps 150 in the whole country.

Because of their proximity to Times Square and association with Broadway moguls and stars, the Stage and the Carnegie became the epitome of what a Jewish deli was. It was the Stage, for example, that created the photo wall, with famous people’s pictures signed with their affection for a favorite sandwich.

It was a war between the Stage and the Carnegie that led to each piling sandwiches ever higher — a battle that changed the expectation of what a deli sandwich was, with six-inch overstuffed piles of meat the new expectation.

It’s hard today for people to realize a delicatessen was more than a sandwich shop. It was integrally caught up in the aspirations of the Jewish people for success in America. It’s hard to imagine but people worked like dogs all week and their bosses, as a reward, would take them for a corned beef or pastrami sandwich, with the prospect a powerful motivator to keep people working hard.

Think of a world in which young men would save up their pennies for the treat of a salami sandwich. If things weren’t going great, you got a frankfurter; if you were in the chips, it was corned beef.

In fact, the Jewish delicatessen was unknown to the mostly rural Jews who came here from Eastern Europe. They discovered deli in America, where more affluent German Jews had set up delis in the city. The delis were kosher, so the new immigrants could aspire to eat there and, in time, adopted the food as their own.

The loss of the Stage Deli is not a surprise. Jewish delis have been closing for years. The high cost of food and other expenses, especially rent of over a million dollars a year for a small restaurant, brought us the, albeit overstuffed, $17 sandwich. The neighborhood changed as well. Instead of being filled with Broadway businesspeople, it mostly is filled with tourists.

The action in Jewish cuisine has shifted. From Manhattan, it moved to Brooklyn and now involves artisanal gefilte fish and pastrami, as well as new delis such as Mile End in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. Deep in Jewish-American cultural mores, this deli features each year a “Traditional Jewish Christmas” — a Chinese feast! — all in sync with the common Jewish tradition of Chinese Food and a movie — what else is open? — on Christmas.

And Jewish food went mainstream. Lots of people enjoy matzo ball soup or a kosher hot dog. Smoked fish, once hand-sliced at the delicatessen, is now sold pre-packaged in every supermarket.

Still, the Stage was in business for three-quarters of a century. It changed but so did the whole world. There was a time when every single night there was a line outside the Stage Deli as men in dinner jackets and women in mink coats waited in line after the theatre for pastrami on rye with mustard. It seems impossible, but it was true. Of course, it was also true that Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer, and Johnny Hopp, as young professional baseball players, shared a walk-up apartment above the Stage in order to save a little money.

Endless numbers of business books are devoted to understanding what makes a particular business successful. Yet the real truth is that whatever that might be, continuing to do the same things will probably lead to failure. The world changes in ways subtle and profound, and failure to evolve ensures obsolescence.

The irony of the Stage Deli closure is that there is a booming market for Jewish Deli — a large and growing community of young Orthodox Jews. Unfortunately, they couldn’t eat at the Stage Deli because, although it was “kosher-style,” it was not kosher. This concession to modernity was made a long time ago and was, at the time, seen as the necessary accommodation to young people who didn’t want the restrictions that kosher imposed on food choices — what, no cheeseburger! – as well as the operational difficulties caused by the high cost of kosher meat and the need to do things such as sell the restaurant every Shabbat to a non-Jew to operate on Saturday.

Yet the world went full circle, and now the older generation that loved deli is dying off or moving to Florida or too concerned about their health to want some schmaltz — chicken fat. The failure of the Stage Deli to evolve and serve the growing population of young Modern Orthodox Jews sealed its fate. How many among us are seeing the demographics transform around us but are failing to keep pace with them? The Stage gave us much, including that parting lesson. DB