Katz’s Deli at 125: New Photo Book Celebrates Lower East Side Classic

The following article was first published in the November 2013 edition of The Lo-Down’s print magazine.

All photos by Baldomero Fernandez, from Autobiography of a Delicatessen; Bauer and Dean Publishers, 2013.

All photos by Baldomero Fernandez, from Autobiography of a Delicatessen; Bauer and Dean Publishers, 2013.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last November, Jake Dell surveyed the nearly deserted dining room of Katz’s Deli, as employees scrambled to round up enough dry ice for 40,000 pounds of meat in storage. The 26-year-old co-owner of the Lower East Side’s oldest restaurant was determined to keep the legendary deli open while the post-storm blackout dragged on. As candles flickered on the tables, two Danish tourists, making the best of Lower Manhattan’s weeklong shutdown, asked Dell, “Where did Harry meet Sally?” Even during these trying times, he didn’t miss a beat, graciously leading them to the table where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal shot their famous 1989 movie scene.

This year, Katz’s is celebrating 125 years on Ludlow Street with a series of headline-grabbing happenings. There have been countless news stories and magazine features, a charity dinner prepared by some of the city’s top chefs and even a pastrami-eating contest, the main event of last summer’s DayLife street festival. Now there’s a photo book to commemorate the anniversary: Anatomy of a Delicatessen, from Bauer and Dean Publishers. Photographer Baldomero Fernandez spent the better part of a year documenting the life of Katz’s, capturing a moment in time in the bustling landmark.

The book is a tribute to this country’s oldest and most famous delicatessen, a place that has stayed almost exactly the same as the neighborhood around it has transformed. Its publication offers us an opportunity to revisit a Lower East Side treasure that has been frequented by countless celebrities and four American presidents and that, somewhere along the way, became  not only a symbol of this historic neighborhood of immigrants but also a major tourist attraction.

Jake Dell.

Jake Dell.

During a recent visit to Katz’s, we chatted with Dell at one of the well-worn Formica tabletops in the back of the restaurant, as tourists and locals sat side by side, devouring those famous hand-carved sandwiches.

“The book and the whole celebration are really about acknowledging a milestone and looking back on something that’s always been a labor of love for my family,” said Dell, whose family has deep LES roots.

Katz’s origins can be traced to 1888, when Morris and Hyman Iceland opened a modest delicatessen on Ludlow Street. A few years later they took on a partner, Willy Katz, who eventually bought out the original owners and gave the deli its current name. In 1923, Katz’s moved from the east side to the west side of Ludlow. It has been operating from the same spot ever since, with a major expansion in the late-1940s.

The Dell family’s relationship with Katz’s began in the 1950s, although they wouldn’t become owners until decades later. In the book, Jake Dell recounts the weekly trips made by his grandfather, Marty, to the delicatessen, where he would schmooze the partners, repeatedly asking them “Ready to sell? Ready to sell?” In 1988, the answer was finally “yes.” Marty, determined that it would always be a family-run restaurant, brought in his son, Alan, a teacher at Seward Park High School, and his brother-in-law, Fred Austin. Over the years, they weathered some tough times. During the economic downturn of the 1990s, the family put every cent they had into keeping the deli open.

“My grandfather [who lived in the Grand Street cooperatives] contributed all the retirement money he could find underneath his mattress,” Jake Dell writes in a short history in the front of the book.

These days, Katz’s is, of course, enjoying a renaissance. Jake, who became an owner four years ago but still has lots of help from the older generation, presides over a thriving business.

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Autobiography of a Delicatessen is part of a series celebrating the “unique character” of businesses that emphasize “quality over the latest trend.” Publisher Beth Dougherty said she was drawn to Katz’s because its customers are remarkably diverse, many staff members have worked in the restaurant for decades and because the deli excels at a time-honored craft–the creation of “perfectly brined, smoked and sliced pastrami.” Fernandez, the photographer, visited Katz’s once a week during a nine-month period to, as he put it, “really capture the essence of the place.”

The book is meant to replicate a visit to Katz’s. From the deli’s unique ticket payment system, to the interactions at the legendary pastrami and corned beef carving stations (up to 25 “countermen” are on the job at one time), to the back room pickling and restocking operations, everything is documented. There’s a whole section of staff appreciation. There are nine third-generation employees, and several large families who work side by side, including the De La Cruz family and the Gomez family. General Manager Rob Abinder is a descendant of one of the earliest owners and has worked in the business since 1976.

During our conversation, Dell talked about what makes Katz’s tick. No one would argue that the Jewish deli is endangered. Katz’s used to have competitors on just about every block of the Lower East Side. But times have obviously changed dramatically. The 2nd Ave Deli relocated to 33rd Street in 2006, making Katz’s the sole old-school survivor in the neighborhood where the Jewish deli genre was invented. Anyone walking by the corner of Ludlow and East Houston streets on a typical weekend afternoon might very well conclude that Katz’s is invincible. But Dell knows success can be fleeting in the restaurant business.

“There are times that are tough and there are times that are good,” he said. “You never know what will happen. We’re grateful for every single customer who’s in here.”

While a lot is beyond their control, Dell follows a philosophy that has worked remarkably well for generations.

“What we can control is the food,” he explained. “We can control the atmosphere and the feel in the restaurant. I make sure it’s exactly the same as it was 125 years ago, and I’ll make sure nothing changes and I’ll hope for the best.”

Among the celebrity photos adorning the walls, there’s a neon sign that reads, “Jake’s Bar Mitzvah.” Yes, he really did become a man in the family deli, and celebrated birthdays and other rites of passage there. So it is probably not too surprising that it took Dell some time to realize that his childhood “second home” was no ordinary restaurant but a place that held special meaning for so many people. In college, he had aspirations of attending medical school and becoming a doctor. But a series of events and revelations led him back to Katz’s. In the book, he recounts one such occurrence, a visit to see his grandfather in the hospital.

“I’ll never forget when he pulled me close and whispered, ‘Why the hell do you want to be a doctor? Come to the business.’”

If you look at longtime Lower East Side businesses that have endured in the face of gentrification, there are a couple of key factors in their longevity. One is the willingness of the new generation to take over when their parents are ready to retire. At Russ & Daughters, the 100-year-old appetizing store up the block from Katz’s, Niki Russ Federman and Josh Tupper, fourth-generation owners, carry on the family tradition. They’re even preparing to open a full-service restaurant on Orchard Street early next year. Russ & Daughters and Katz’s, both benefiting from new blood, are bucking the trend. Jake Dell says he wants to grow old in the deli business and he hopes that 125 years from now his “great-grandkid is exactly where I am today.”

The other key factor is whether family-run businesses control the buildings in which their establishments are located. While the Dell family owns their low-rise building, which is blessed with an abundance of air rights, rumors crop up every few years that they’re thinking of selling. Alan Dell told The New York Times earlier this year that the building is “history” and he proclaimed, “you don’t sell history.” At other times, members of the family have intimated that they might entertain an offer if the price was right. Last month, Jake Dell made it clear how he feels.

“That storefront is who we are,” he said. “I love this place and I think I would have a lot of people really angry with me if we changed this storefront and we picked up and moved out of the Lower East Side. Are you kidding me? No.”

This is not to say Katz’s is completely averse to modernization. Although the place has been a celebrity magnet for decades, and the deli has never been shy about displaying the smiling faces of its famous customers, the older generation was never all that publicity hungry. So it was notable this past year when competitive eaters lined up on Ludlow Street for the deli’s first-ever pastrami-snarfing contest, as news photographers and camera crews jockeyed for position.  Longtime customers might not have known what to think when the white tablecloths came out for a benefit dinner in June featuring some of New York’s top-tier chefs, including Mission Chinese’s Danny Bowien, who prepared a dish dubbed “kung pao pastrami.”

Just this month, Katz’s embraced another modern-day marketing trend, debuting a pop-up known as “The Space,” a temporary art gallery and apparel shop.

“This is very much an art neighborhood now, phenomenal galleries, phenomenal artists who live here,” Dell noted in explaining the thinking behind the new venture. “We wanted to celebrate that.”

But contemporary additions to the Katz’s franchise aside, the Dell family knows why the crowds keep coming through the doors year after year. Perhaps more than any iconic destination in the city, Katz’s has the ability to trigger nostalgia in both longtime customers as well as newcomers longing for a taste of old New York.

“Tradition is very important,” said Jake Dell. “It’s been instilled in me from the time I was very young.”