How the old school Jewish deli stays relevant

November 13, 2017

2nd Avenue Deli is opening up a cocktail bar above its iconic sandwich shop

Keeping this tradition alive means serving corned beef with rye cocktails.

2nd Avenue Deli, one of the few remaining Jewish sandwich shops in New York City, is opening a cocktail lounge above its Upper East Side location this month hoping to lure in some of its most loyal customers’ grandkids.

“You’re not going to see someone drinking a black cherry soda and eating a pastrami sandwich,” owner Jeremy Lebewohl tells Moneyish of the new space called 2nd Floor Bar & Essen at 1442 First Ave. opening on Nov. 27. “I’m hoping that people will realize there is a lot more delicatessens have to offer than just sandwiches. I think this new cocktail lounge will show that.”

When it came to naming the space, Lebewohl wanted to go with something simple, opting to call it 2nd Floor with a bright neon sign outside so that people know it’s associated with the deli downstairs.

Lebewohl says he isn’t trying to rebrand, just enhance the iconic deli by creating an elevated menu of trendy small plates beyond the smoked pastrami, brisket and knishes his shop is famous for. When dreaming up the menu, Lebewohl took inspiration from childhood favorites, like Patcha soup, a dish that dates back to the 14th century, traditionally made from jellied calves’ feet. (He reimagined the dish as millennial friendly bone broth.) There will also be a spin on gefilte fish in the form of fried croquettes.

“When people think about gefilte fish, you have that horrible vision of seeing jellied fish in a can,” he says.

2nd Avenue Deli has been a household name since it opened in 1954 at its original location on the corner of Second Ave. and East 10th St. in the East Village of Manhattan. It closed briefly following the death of the original owner Abe Lebewohl, a Holocaust survivor, in 1996 and his son Jack Lebewohl took over until 2006 when the shop closed due to a rent dispute. A year later, Jack’s two sons, Josh Lebewohl and Jeremy Lebewohl opened a new location in 2007 in Murray Hill still deciding to call it 2nd Avenue. In 2011 they opened the deli’s second outpost on the Upper East Side.

“We really just thought that a cocktail lounge is something that felt really classic New York, something that made it feel like it existed here for as long as the brand itself.”

Like the upcoming 2nd Floor Bar, putting a new age spin on a decades-old Jewish deli is something many others in New York have attempted to do in recent years.

In 2014, Russ & Daughters, the century old family-operated Lower East Side herring and smoked fish haven opened its namesake sit down café restaurant nearby, serving upscale plates like $60 scrambled eggs with paddlefish caviar, $90 smoked salmon platters and $12 gin martinis. The expansion allowed them to serve customers in a new way — a full service restaurant as opposed to having just carry out and catering.

“These are what you would call legacy businesses and definitely New York staples. You have multiple generational businesses, they already had success, but they’d like to continue and expand on that success,” New York City restaurant consultant Jason Kaplan of JK Consulting says.

Old-school Jewish delis are becoming more and more scarce. Carnegie Deli, known for its heaping, over-sized portions and celebrity clientele, closed its landmark Theater District location last year. Its long time rival, The Stage Deli, another gut-busting, neighborhood staple that was around for 75 years, closed in 2012 due to spiraling rent increases.

“The number of Jewish delis has definitely gone down as they continue to close. These legacy entrepreneurs have been able to say we have amazing quality, but we’re going to expand our line and presence,” Kaplan notes.

That’s exactly what Katz’s Delicatessen, the storied Lower East Side institution that’s been serving towering pastrami and corned beef sandwiches since 1888 has done. Owner Jake Dell opened its first-ever outpost earlier this year, a small stand called A Taste of Katz’s inside the new trendy food hall inside Dekalb Market Hall in Downtown Brooklyn. He says the move was to cater to more customers outside of Manhattan as a grab-and-go hub, not recreate the experience.

“From a brand perspective, one of the things that make us so unique is that nostalgia people get when they come in here, there’s an emotional impact,” Dell says.

“Those things are impossible to recreate.”

By Jeanette Settembre



JK Consulting is a New York-based international restaurant & hospitality consulting firm. We specialize in restaurant & bar openings along with turnaround programs. Our expertise is in developing highly effective operational systems, management procedures, hospitality services, staff training, beverage, menu and mystery shopping programs.
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