We don’t want to imagine a world where a great corned beef sandwich or a hearty matzo ball soup is a wistful memory. Those words, delivered when we first started blogging, sum up our feelings about the demise of the traditional Jewish deli.
Our good friend David Sax documented that demise in his book Save the Deli. But he also discusses and recognizes that many traditional Jewish delis are still with us, even though their numbers have hugely dwindled in the past 50 years. David traveled North America and parts of Europe to discover and exalt places where you can still purchase excellent Jewish food in the traditional way.
But other eateries have abandoned the traditional Jewish deli format in order to keep the pots cooking and the matzo ball soup flowing. They have improvised and streamlined themselves into a different business model in order to exist, while still allowing the consumer to sample real Jewish deli fare.
You won’t find these delis recognized in the book, but they are an important part of the clamor by us and others to preserve Jewish food. We are going to use this blog to recognize these visionaries from time to time; here is the first.
In 1996, Alex Winkler had a plan. Having worked in the Detroit deli scene his entire adult life, he knew the traditional Jewish deli model was on a downturn. But he also felt that good deli food would triumph, if he changed the delivery model. So with his first Bread Basket Deli, spun off the original, traditional-style deli, he focused on changing 3 key things:
Reduced Menu Items – It seems to be a requirement of traditional Jewish deli that the menu offerings are many, and encompass a good chunk of the Jewish palate. Items like latkes, knish, and blintzes are usually mainstays. But Alex decided to reduce the menu to key sandwiches, soups, salads and desserts, lowering food and labor costs. You can still get a great corned beef sandwich at his stores, but not a latke.
Fast Casual Format – Walk in and order – then take away – from the counter. There are plenty of places to sit if you want to stay, but no table service, creating cost savings without sacrificing food quality.
Inner Ring Location – Instead of following the suburban Detroit sprawl further and further outside of the city center, Alex chose to focus on the city and it’s inner suburbs. Rather than chasing affluence, he focuses on working class customers, who are highly responsive to the high quality but relative simplicity of a sandwich and soup menu.
It’s pretty clear that Alex is doing it right, having expanded his empire from that first location in 1996 to a local chain of 11 stores, all with the same successful format. We are pleased that he is a customer and sells our products, but we salute him here for doing so much to save the deli.