Who hasn't heard of Zabars? The
shop that sells food from around the world: smoked fish, caviar, cheese
and… nothing but wonderful stuff! After having written a post on
shopping adventures at this family owned food store, a New York
institution, I decided it would be great to interview the folks who run
it. My co-producer, Jonathan, thought it would even be greater to actually get the man
behind the operation, Saul Zabar. Easy for Jonathan to say. He wasn’t
the guy asking for the interview. But luckily, Saul Zabar turned out to
be one of the sweetest, as well as smartest pros I’ve ever met, inviting me meet him at his office above the fabled store of his
One of the reasons I chose this place was its connection with the Jewish businesses which once thrived in the city, but as with the mom and pop stores of other European ethnic groups like Italians and Germans, seem to be disappearing from New York. Granted, there are some great new immigrant food stores taking their place, but the food, as well as the history, of these older players is something to treasure. Today, there aren’t many of the legendary Kosher delis left. Zabars, Russ & Daughters, Katz's are still here. But sometimes I wonder, given Manhattan’s astronomical rents, how much longer can they last? Well, after talking with Saul, I have faith in the staying power of Zabar’s, a business that for decades has managed to keep masses of highly discriminating customers very, very happy.
Saul Zabar is a man who likes telling stories. And having been in the food business in New York since 1950, he has great stories to tell. Saul paints a great picture of old New York, the family business, and his education in the smoked fish and coffee markets. At the end, honestly, I felt lucky to get the chance to have the chance to listen. Listening to him made me think a lot of my paternal grandfather, also a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. In the interview, Saul recounted the Zabar family’s struggles coming from a Ukranian shtetl, sharing the history of his relationships with partner Murray Klein, telling stories of their different food businesses, coffee on the docks of the city’s once vibrant port, even tales about some of the competitors who he admires.
Walking away, Saul left me thinking he's the best type of businessman in this tough business of food, someone who respects his customers, but also takes real pride in his employees, knowing their value as workers but also human beings. Whether it's devoting the resources it takes to train them, keep them, and make sure that they feel part of the business, he's a man who serves as nourishment to several important communities. And so if I initially
worried that Zabar’s might not defy the gravity of Manhattan’s massive
gentrification, and though his daughter has left the business, (don't
worry, Saul, knowing food and knowing family, I say she will be back!),
anyone visiting the upper West Side can count that this deeply rooted
icon will be alive for many generations, nurtured by his cousins, his
son and all of his loyal New Yorker patrons who form crowded lines
every day, happy to take home some of his goodies.
So come on in. Click to listen