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the show—and the deli—must go on
In the early morning hours of February 7th, the Carnegie Deli experienced its most unusual takeout order: armed robbers wanted the cash.
The deli always stayed open until 4 a.m. and then re-opened its doors at 6 a.m. The seven robbers must have canvassed the place or received an inside tip about the window of opportunity because the holdup ...
the show—and the deli—must go on
In the early morning hours of February 7th, the Carnegie Deli experienced its most unusual takeout order: armed robbers wanted the cash.
The deli always stayed open until 4 a.m. and then re-opened its doors at 6 a.m. The seven robbers must have canvassed the place or received an inside tip about the window of opportunity because the holdup occurred at 4:45 a.m.
The thieves entered through a fire exit, surprising Sam Steiner, Leo's brother, and two dishwashers, and a deliveryman.
A thug toting a sawed-off shotgun struck Steiner in the eye and ordered him and the staff on the ground with the menacing threat, "Or we'll blow you away."
The robbers forced open the cash register and took the night's receipts. Then the gang fled into the deserted street. The robbers were never identified . . .
But Leo Steiner had the last word:
"the schmucks took the money and left the pastrami!"
DOING BUSINESS THE CARNEGIE DELI WAY
The Carnegie Deli has become a successful commercial enterprise because it has operated on sound business principles. Today, it is an internationally recognized brand known to both New Yorkers and tourists as a must stop.
In 1937, the deli embarked on a 67-year journey to progress from a modest 92-seat restaurant to a national award-winning delicatessen. It has been featured prominently and often on the Food Channel cable network, television shows, and also in domestic and foreign magazines and newspapers. When the media want to wax nostalgic about delicatessen food, the Carnegie Deli always comes to mind.
Leo Steiner and Milton Parker, the partners responsible for the restaurant's success, had no million-dollar revenue stars in their eyes. Their initial goal was simple: to make a decent profit at the end of the day. Parker has said, "If we were left with more cash at the end of the week, we considered the deli a success."
Of the more than 300 New York-area delis in 1976, when the Carnegie changed hands, only 30 exist today because dining tastes changed over time. In addition, a delicatessen, if run correctly (like the Carnegie), is a 22 1/2-hours-a-day, hands-on operation. Few new restaurateurs have elected to make delicatessen work their life's profession.
Carnegie Deli: Business 101
What business guidelines has the deli employed over these many years? What are the keys to its commercial success? Why did it survive when so many other famous New York City delicatessens (e.g., The Madison Avenue Deli, Wolfs on West 57th Street) faded into obscurity?
At the outset, the Carnegie Deli-a multimillion-dollar operation-has no thick book that contains a Mission Statement or an elaborate, numbers-driven business plan. Current management never speaks of "company culture" or "core competency." The deli sticks to basic business principles.
It follows 10 straightforward business practices:
1. Keep it simple. The Carnegie Deli's product is delicatessen food and only deli food.
2. Do one thing better than anyone else. Customers have a choice where to eat deli in New York City, so the Carnegie consistently succeeds in serving a higher-quality, better-tasting, and larger-portion product than any other competitor. 3. Create a family atmosphere among the staff. Time and time again, the staff, many who have been working at the Carnegie for 15 years or more, use the phrase, "We're family here."
4. Promote from within. The deli grooms people to fill the slots when workers retire. The upper, supervisory levels of the staff (cooks, countermen, servers) started out at the lowest rank.
5. Have an open ear to staff and customer comments. At the deli or at the commissary, senior management are constantly asking customers and wholesale clients about quality. In addition, the staff know they can discuss matters with management in an open and free exchange.
6. Make it yourself. The Carnegie commissary cures, pickles, and smokes its own fresh meats and bakes its pastries daily. The deli also purchases only high-quality fresh bread, pickles, and so on, from leading suppliers.
7. Own the premises. The Carnegie owns the building on Seventh Avenue and the 22,000-square-foot commissary in New Jersey.
8. Management is always responsible. There's no finger-pointing. If something goes wrong or is mishandled, management is at fault.
9. Do not be greedy. The Carnegie Deli could license its name for similar products that could be made by other food companies. But the Carnegie insists that only products made in its own commissary will be sold at retail or wholesale. 10. Have fun working. The staff at the deli and at the commissary enjoys coming to work. They're happy to be part of the Carnegie Deli family.
There are many business decisions-most profitable, others less so-that contributed to the Carnegie's success. Attempts to open branches in other cities have failed. The original commissary in downtown Manhattan (a leased arrangement that supplied only the deli) eventually became a Carnegie Deli-owned, 22,000-square-foot plant that now accommodates all of the wholesale and retail demands.
The growth of the Carnegie Deli is a Cinderella business story, starting out as a plain, nondescript, hole-in-thewall restaurant and emerging as the delicatessen of choice for presidents, celebrities, one sultan, and, most importantly and profitably, the world's delicatessen eating public.
The first Carnegie Deli opened in 1937 in a small interior space. It started without pretensions, just another deli in the West Fifties, an area made more famous by the 1931 construction of Rockefeller Center (not completed until 1940). The sprawling office, retail, and cultural complex changed forever the dowdy tenement look of the area.
There are many famous restaurants in the United States, but there is only one Carnegie Deli. This book narrates its marvelous tale.
1937: The Opening
The location: 854 Seventh Avenue near West 55th Street in Manhattan. In 1937, the building code for the area changed to permit retail establishments at street level in former residential buildings. Soon after, Seventh Avenue south of West 57th Street started to attract more retail stores.
The event: Izzie and Ida Orgel opened a 40-seat restaurant, which they named the Carnegie Deli because of its proximity to Carnegie Hall. In those days, it was typical for Manhattan retail establishments to name themselves after nearby landmarks. Today, Milton Parker jokes, saying, "They named a world famous concert hall after us."
The restaurant featured a small kitchen and a dining room counter for making sandwiches. The cuisine consisted of Eastern European/Jewish deli food: cured meat sandwiches, hot brisket or flanken, chicken in the pot, chopped liver, matzoh ball soup, and apple strudel or rice pudding for dessert. Sandwiches were 50 cents.
Seven blocks downtown on West 48th Street and one west on Broadway, another 40-seat restaurant opened in 1937. It was called the Stage Delicatessen because of its proximity to the Broadway theaters.
The original clientele at the Carnegie Deli consisted of local residents and musicians and performers at Carnegie Hall who dined before or after practice, or for dinner before a concert. Since many of the customers were European, it was a treat to have familiar deli cuisine near the great hall.
No one on March 11, 1937, regarded the opening of this delicatessen as a memorable date in the history of New York City. It was just another deli, one of hundreds in the five boroughs of New York.
1942 to 1976: Carnegie Max Hudes
In 1942, the Orgel family sold the Carnegie Deli to Max Hudes, who had operated a takeout-only delicatessen at Broadway and West 103rd Street. He wanted a sit-down delicatessen and was attracted by the Carnegie's midtown location.
In the 1950s, the major TV studios and sound stages were a few blocks downtown in Manhattan's West Fifties. Many show business performers, pals of Max's from his boyhood growing up in the Bronx, would come over from the Ed Sullivan, Sid Caesar, and Jackie Gleason shows.
To promote the deli, Hudes relied on radio advertising. Some old-timers can still remember the commercials on Long John Nebel's program, touting the great food. Some remember the matchbooks with the caricature of "Carnegie Max."
The Carnegie had to respond to the competition from the Stage Deli, which had moved uptown, to Seventh Avenue and West 54th Street, in 1942. The Stage was run by the legendary Max Asnas, who made his place the spot for showbiz and sports celebrities.
In the 1960s, the Carnegie catered the Sunday morning dress rehearsals of the British rock invasion. Max's son Herbert can remember taking coffee, bagels, and Danish to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The bands stayed at hotels in the area and would come into the Carnegie after their performances.
By 1976, Max Hudes and his two partners had aged. They had tried for two years to sell the delicatessen and the building but without success. They asked some restaurant brokers to help find new ownership. After 34 years operating the second incarnation of the Carnegie Deli, it was time for new ownership and new directions.
1976: The Deli House that Leo and Milton Built
In December 1976, the new owners' primary goal was to generate more business. The revenues had fallen off significantly during the two years that the Carnegie had been up for sale.
The plan was to offer the same deli fare as the then more famous Stage Deli, a block south on the same, west side of Seventh Avenue. But there were two notable exceptions: the Carnegie Deli would hand cure its three top-selling sandwich meats-pastrami, corned beef, and tongue-and not buy wholesale like the Stage; and the Carnegie would not compete with the Stage's famous show business-named sandwiches.
"We'll keep it simple," said Leo Steiner to Milton Parker.
"That's okay with me," replied Parker.
Steiner hired his brother Sam to begin curing meats in the basement with a hand-pumped brine machine. This was a labor-intensive method for injecting a secret pickling solution (to tenderize the meat). The meats were left to cure and pickle for 7 to 10 days to produce the distinctive flavor. After pickling, the meats were boiled for up to three hours and then brought directly to the counter for steaming. Afterward, they were sliced hot onto bread and then served to the customers.
Milton Parker made a mental note that when business improved, he would change the old Carnegie Deli's blinking neon sign with its pale yellow background. It looked like an old style neon sign from the 1930s era of Times Square.
Years came and went, but the sign never changed. Today, it is a nostalgic reminder of the old days, one of the last blinking neon signs in Manhattan.
Over the next 28 years, the pale yellow backdrop and the scripted sign would welcome millions of diners. But on that December day in 1976, the owners had no knowledge of what the future of the Carnegie Deli would be.
They only knew it was time to go to work.
1979: You're the Tops!
On March 2, 1979, readers of the New York Times Friday Weekend section were at first surprised and then captivated by a six-column article spreading across page C16. It was a review written by Mimi Sheraton, the dean of New York City's influential newspaper and magazine food critics. The headline grabbed everyone's attention: "Where to Eat the Best Pastrami and Corned Beef in Town."
The article, almost as lengthy as but more gripping than a short story, captured readers' attention the way no other food critic's column had ever done before or would ever do again. The reason was evident: The food mentioned, the food being rated, the prizes being awarded were not to fancy restaurants serving haute or nouvelle cuisine. Sheraton had not graded the best foie gras, the tastiest risotto Milanese, or the most delicious white truffles. She had rated the most democratic of New York City restaurant favorites: delicatessen pastrami and corned beef.
New Yorkers prided themselves on their deli experiences and were often competitive when declaring their earliest deli meals:
"I was nine months old when I ate in a deli."
"Oh, yeah. I was conceived minutes after my parents left the deli."
"Big deal. I was born on the floor of a deli."
In discussions of cured meats in this town, everyone had an opinion, and everyone had a favorite deli. And who, New Yorkers wondered as they scanned the headline in the Times, had been named the town's pastrami and corned beef winners? Which of the 16 Metropolitan New York delis rated were the champs or the chumps?
Sheraton had eschewed the paper's four-star, best-place ranking for a more down-to-earth best rating called simply, "The Tops." Three delicatessens were cited in this top-of-the-line category.
The Pastrami King was located in Kew Gardens, Queens, which to Manhattanites could have been Podunk or Pawtucket it was so far away. The second deli was in Manhattan, Bernstein's-on-Essex Street. This was the legendary Lower East Side restaurant that served a combination of delicatessen and kosher Chinese food. Here, the waiters wore tasseled Chinese skullcaps or yarmulkes. But Essex Street was on the Lower East Side in a part of the city most people had forgotten about. And the odd mishmash of kosher and Chinese did not say "all deli all the time."
The third of the "Tops" turned out to be a revelation for deli-discriminating Manhattan tastes. It was the known, but unknown, Carnegie Deli on Seventh Avenue, located in the heart of upper midtown. It had always been referred to as the "other" deli, the one up the street from the Stage.
In the true meaning of the quintessential New York second, at 11 A.M. the Carnegie, a restaurant that had been revitalized by its new owners two years earlier with no notice taken by the deli-eating public, witnessed its first-ever line of people clamoring to get in. As the day continued, the line grew and grew and grew as New Yorkers, many clutching the Times article in their hands, awaited their turn to taste (and to judge, of course) the cured meats, but especially the pastrami.
On that Friday, March 2, 1979, the world of the Carnegie Deli changed in dramatic and astonishing ways its two owners could never have imagined. It was like a Times theater critic giving a rave review to a Broadway show. There was one substantial difference, though. Not everyone attended the theater, but everyone ate and loved deli.
An actress-turned-professor from Chicago who remembered the review said, "It was the classic theatrical tale of the unknown chorus girl stepping out of the back line to take over the star's role and receive a standing ovation."
Twenty-five years later, that initial magnificent review continues to inspire the Carnegie Deli. The lines that formed on that Friday in 1979 still form every day, and the cured meats remain the best tasting.
Bernstein's-on-Essex closed in 1988, and by 2004 the Pastrami King was only a memory in Queens. This left the Carnegie Deli as the last of the three fabulous "Tops."
Mimi Sheraton and the New York Times
Turn back the clock to 1979. The New York Times was one of the few serious local guides to dining spots in the city. Starting in 1957, when Craig Claiborne realized a lifelong ambition to become the Times restaurant critic, the newspaper treated dining and new restaurants with almost the same importance as the openings of Broadway shows. The city's middle and higher income classes, who dined out often and well, considered the newspaper's one- to four-star review as the definitive restaurant guide.
In 1976, Brooklyn-born Mimi Sheraton assumed the stewardship of the Times food and restaurant column. She was the daughter of a commission merchant in a wholesale produce market and of a mother who was an excellent cook.
From the outset, as Sheraton demonstrated an openness to taste all types of foods, she attracted readers to her Friday Weekend column. She expanded the scope of her restaurant reporting, going beyond reviewing only fancy European dining spots. She always visited a restaurant incognito, and at least three times to ensure that a hit or miss was not based on one good or one bad dining experience.
Most of her reviews-using the same four-star system-rated multinational cuisines or smaller restaurants. For Sheraton, the how and why of preparation remained vital, whether she was eating the food of a French chef with a Cordon Bleu degree or of a cook from Sicily, serving up his island's peasant fare.
Her egalitarian approach resulted in reviews of many cuisines in every section of Manhattan, and in the four outer boroughs-an innovative attitude at the time. If a Moldavian bistro opened in Forest Hills, Queens, or a Tasmanian eating place opened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Sheraton would dine there many times to rate it. In the past, she had reviewed New York's Chinese restaurants that served kosher food and the kitschy Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse on the Lower East Side.
Excerpted from How to Feed Friends and Influence People by Milton Parker Excerpted by permission.
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|Course 1||Doing business the Carnegie Deli way||1|
|Course 2||Leo Steiner, owner : "into the deli limelight"||19|
|Course 3||Henny Youngman : king of the one-liners||41|
|Course 4||Milton Parker, owner : "hard work and good luck"||47|
|Course 5||Jack Sirota, waiter : "last of the originals"||101|
|Course 6||Sandy Levine, managing director of retail and MBD : "the happy deli man"||123|
|Course 7||Marian Parker Levine, daughter and wife : "all in the deli family"||131|
|Course 8||Jeff Jensen, managing director of wholesale : "Mr. Contentment at the commissary"||137|
|Course 9||Joel Siegel, diner : "loving the deli life"||157|