February/March, 2011

From the Editor

Put Deli Back Into The Deli

By quirk of fate, I wound up living in a country club community built around numerous golf courses and tennis courts — though I play neither golf nor tennis. I do, however, frequent the six restaurants on site, and I write this column from the deli.

They served my matzo ball soup and I just went up to the sandwich bar where a man who actually knows how these things should be done cut me a voluminous sandwich from the tip of a hot tongue. It is, for me, a rare delicacy.

The management here is eagle-eyed with respect to the clientele. Unlike many equity country clubs, there is no requirement to spend a minimum amount of money in the restaurants or spa. This has created a culture where management feels obliged to offer the kind of food people here want and will actually buy.

Thus, my tongue sandwich.

Of course, this restaurant, filled to the brim and with a line out the door, would fail almost everywhere in America. Indeed, it will fail here in another decade or so as a new generation comes in.

The big daily special is the “scoop” salad — a mixed green salad topped with a choice of a scoop of chicken salad, tuna salad, shrimp salad, egg salad, whitefish salad, etc., with each day featuring one “low-cal” scoop. It’s the most popular thing on the menu, and I can vividly remember my grandmother dressing up to take me to lunch and it is, precisely, what she would order.

This place takes soup seriously as well. The management e-mails the monthly soup cycle to everyone in the community so you can time your visit to each restaurant to get your favorite soup. The concession to age: Many are now offered in low-sodium versions.

The menus sometimes promote specific brands. The hot dogs, the menu explains, are Nathan’s Famous, as are the crinkle cut french fries. The aficionados whisper among themselves that Nathan’s french fries are made from round white potatoes, which produce a moister, tastier fry than the long russet potato used in most fast-food places.

The menu includes breakfast for lunch, and it offers a full assortment of bagels and smoked fish, plus special preparations such as matzo brei.

When you sit down, they bring both a breadbasket filled with crackers and pretzel bread and a bowl of pickled treats. Half sour pickles, sour garlic dills, pickled green tomatoes, red peppers and more.

I love the food. It’s delicious; it’s moderately priced; the service is good, and for a Jewish boy born in Brooklyn and raised in Long island, it brings back memories of going to Nathan’s with my family, standing on line in Waldbaum’s or at an “appetizing” store to buy lox and nova, sturgeon, sable, baked salmon, white fish, blue fish and scallion cream cheese.

I remember when my grandparents retired to Florida that, almost every day for lunch, my grandmother would prepare my grandfather a Hebrew National salami sandwich on toasted rye bread with seeds and deli mustard, with a sour pickle on the side.

Now two things have happened. First, the generation that ate this way — and the culinary culture that was built around these foods — is passing. Second, when supermarkets took on full-service delis and decided to roll them out all across America, they brought the concept to places that never ate this way.

The great positive side of this is that the supermarket deli has proved to be remarkably versatile. In Texas, it may have a Mexican food bar and in California a sushi bar. All across the country, the deli is home for pizza and chicken programs — both fried and rotisserie.

As consumer health expectations and quality standards transformed, the deli changed as well. Rare today is the pimento loaf, and high-quality meats are common.

Sandwich programs across the land offer things that appeal to the contemporary shopper in that region and to that particular store’s demographic.

Today’s vast assortment of prepared foods provides a powerful reason to go to the supermarket deli rather than a restaurant when buying a family meal. Where else can you find everyone’s favorites in one place?

Yet, this very strength is also an enormous weakness. The traditional deli, whether Jewish or Italian, was actually a type of food — so there was something to promote much as one might promote pizza. Those who would promote it had a vested interest in building demand for that particular type of food.

The marketing challenge for the supermarket deli today is that it is so diverse it isn’t in the business of building demand for any particular food. So it either sells generic concepts, such as convenience or quality, or it subdivides and sells its pizza program or sandwich program as separate entities.

We have to work the situation and these are the best of the alternatives. But watching the happy folks order their favorite treats — pastrami on rye, a Reuben sandwich, a potato knish — is a reminder there’s something to be said for selling deli as deli. DB