Photo: Melissa Hom
The enduring appeal of Katz’s Deli is predicated on consistency. The same location, the same excellent pastrami, the same mix of seasoned New Yorkers mingling with exuberant tourists, all since 1888. (And since 1989, the same “I’ll have what she’s having” jokes.) As Adam Platt said, while naming it the “absolute best deli in New York,” Katz’s is “less stuck in time than beyond time, somehow.” This is largely because, although the restaurant moved once, from Ludlow to Houston Street in 1917, only one location has ever existed at any given time in its 129-year history.
That changed last month, when the newish owner, 29-year-old Jake Dell — his grandfather took over Katz’s in 1988; he started running operations in 2009 — expanded the business by opening a takeout-only stand in Brooklyn’s DeKalb Market Hall. It’s a decision that foreshadows the future of one of New York’s most beloved institutions at a time when so many delis and diners are struggling.
In a back table at Katz’s, in between greeting elderly regulars and spot-checking the pastrami, Dell explained what motivated this decision, how he painstakingly ensures quality control as Katz’s grows, and if he wants to scale this new takeout concept and bring corned beef to the masses.
Does it feel like you’re opening your first restaurant?
It does, a little bit. It’s not though, right? At the end of the day, it’s takeout only. It’s an outpost. It’s what we know how to do, and it’s what I’ve been doing for many, many years. It’s simple and more straightforward in some ways than it would’ve been had it been a completely new restaurant. No seats always helps.
You’re only responsible for a limited level of customer service and Jewish complaining.
The thing is — we have this customer base that wants a certain thing, which is a blessing and a curse. They’re going to let you know if it’s not exactly what they want. If it’s even remotely wrong, they tell me, and I love that.
Certainly, you’ve had other opportunities to expand. Why was creating a takeout concept in a food hall appealing?
One of the most important things for me is maintaining tradition and preserving the classics. That’s what people expect from me and from Katz’s. Forgive me, I know you’re writing about me, so I have to mention myself, but really, I don’t give a shit. It’s about Katz’s. It’s about me preserving this tradition. You can’t re-create everything. You can’t re-create nostalgia. You can’t re-create the smut on the walls or the smell of an old neon sign, but you can bring the food closer to people. I don’t think you can replicate this place. This place is perfect. For all of its imperfections, it’s perfect. I’m not going to re-create that over there, so takeout-only made sense. It’s a taste of Katz’s.
It’s not the shiny, new Disney version of Katz’s.
Exactly. The location made sense because I have a ton of regulars who come from over the bridge. A lot of New Yorkers, like real old-school New Yorkers, treat Katz’s as a to-go place anyway.
Even if it is takeout-only, this is still a major expansion, considering the history. Emotionally, how’d you make this decision? Who’d you consult? It’s easy to peg you as the millennial who wants his own empire.
I’ve said this before, but I think I’m the only 75-year-old millennial who exists in the world. I am a super-old man, deep down. I’m like a Jewish grandma, but also your younger brother. I like to talk to people. I’m not particularly shy, if that wasn’t abundantly obvious. And customers have been asking me for this for years now. So emotionally, that was easy.
Did anyone in your life disagree?
It’s New York. Everyone disagrees with everything.
How’d your parents feel?
My family was onboard with it. If there are people who let you know when you’ve fucked up, it’s always your family, right? I spoke to my father and my uncle, who ran the place for many, many years. But emotionally — I’ll let you know in like a year how I fare. Maybe I’m still too deep in the weeds.
This is a concept that easily lends itself to scaling. I know you’ll play coy on expansion plans, but you must’ve had that in mind as you built it?
A food critic that I know very well and respect a lot — whose name I’ll spare for the purposes of this, but who is one of the pickier pains in the ass that exists in the industry — he looked at it before it opened and he turned to me and said, “This is perfect. You’re going to put this everywhere, because we need it everywhere.” And I said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Food Critic — or Mrs. Food Critic — I don’t even know if this is going to work.” People might not like this. How many restaurants fail in New York?
How many delis close?
All the time, man. There are ebbs and flows in every business, but there are also businesses that are never going to make it, because they’re bad ideas, no matter how good the food tastes. We don’t know. This is me trying to connect with customers in the best way I know, based on what I’m hearing. But I could be wrong. People have been wrong for way less. So, we’ll see.
You didn’t really answer the question.
I didn’t at all. I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.
If this is successful, will you enter other markets?
If enough customers demand it from me, I would consider anything. That’s the thing my family’s always felt very strongly about — we’ll consider every opportunity; it just has to be right. And that’s why we never opened another Katz’s. There was no right opportunity. There’s a draw for this, but it can’t just come from me wanting to open a chain.
Were you able to personally finance the expansion?
We were able to do it [without investors].
That’s the thing about restaurants — you never really know. It’s easy to think of Katz’s as so successful and profitable, but you do only have one location and you can’t really raise prices.
The economics of a deli are really hard. They’re really, really hard. If the cost of beef skyrockets one day, a French restaurant will introduce a mushroom dish, or risotto, anything else. I can’t do that. Meat goes up, guess what? I lose money. And guess what, I need volume because I’m curing it; I’m smoking it —
And you need consistency in your suppliers.
I need consistency in my suppliers across the board. Every day needs to be the same. On the other side of this wall, it’s 45,000 pounds of meat at different stages of the curing process. What other restaurants have to deal with that? And do you know what the cost of turning that meat into a good piece of corned beef is? Most delis don’t make their own shit every day. It’s not worth it. This is what I mean about doing it the right way. I can still do this process and deliver it to Brooklyn and it’s still the same corned beef, the same pastrami, the same brisket, the same hot dog, the same knish, and the same latkes.
I’m guessing you drive the food out to Brooklyn daily?
I bought a truck! There’s a 25-foot truck with pastrami roaming around New York City. It has a photo of a Reuben and a pastrami sandwich on it.
Do you drive the truck?
I promoted one of my guys —
To truck driver?
From counterman to truck driver. Head of logistics, let’s call it.
Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
You’ve also opened a shipping facility in New Jersey.
I view shipping the same way I view the new location. When you live in Iowa, you can’t get good pastrami. You can get canned Spam-esque corned beef.
How many customers do you really have in Iowa?
You’d be surprised. The distribution is in all 50 states. A 30,000-square-foot facility allows me to bring a cultural heritage closer to people. But by far the most is California. Very close second is Florida.
How do you ensure quality control?
The hardest thing in the world. It’s not just shipping. It’s quality control everywhere. It’s a whole lot of tasting things. But it’s also a whole lot of … just watching. Being a pain in the ass. I’ll see a cart come out with meat and I’ll know right away if it’s good or bad.
You just see it?
I can sometimes smell it. Sometimes I see the way it moves in the cart — a certain jiggle. A certain bounce of the meat. And I know right away that something’s off. And it’s something that I think are just micro differences in pastrami, but I’m hypersensitive to that.
You can’t be everywhere, though.
It’s true. But I can constantly show that I’m paying attention and that my top managers are always paying attention, and teach them what I’m looking for and why I’m being picky. It can spread through the entire organization. Look, each piece of pastrami is like a baby. They’re each different. You raise them differently; you treat them differently; they grow up differently.
How do you package the food to ship?
We cook it; we slice it; we freeze it. Mustard, knishes, hot dogs, pickles … we’ve figured out how to send every single thing. Pickles you can’t freeze. They come out really weird and gross. But everything else you can freeze.
And how important is local delivery to your business? I know you’re on the apps.
I’m fundamentally opposed to most of them, and I constantly threaten to kick them out, but to date I haven’t yet. I hate them all. I think it’s more catering that’s a bigger deal for our business. We just sent a meat cutter to be there at midnight for a wedding. Who else in New York can do that? Can send a guy with a knife, a fork, and 500 pounds of meat and say, “Serve my party”? Deliveries on the other hand, whatever.
You’re a young person running a very old company. Do you feel like you’re isolated in the restaurant industry? Are there other businesses that inspire you?
I had breakfast with Danny Meyer about a week or two ago. He’s my favorite person to talk to. Katz’s is unique, but it’s also not. There’s a lot of overlap with others in the industry. I think the one common theme to everyone is that nobody really knows what the fuck they’re doing. So all that “Malcolm Gladwell, 10,000 hours, you’re an expert” bullshit —
You’ve certainly spent the hours. You were raised inside Katz’s.
No one becomes an expert, ever. You get the best information in front of you, and then you figure out the best decision you can, and that’s it. And I’m in a unique position, so I have unique problems and unique things. But I don’t know shit. I’m not cocky enough to think that I know everything, let’s put it that way.
Do you struggle with Katz’s feeling inherited as opposed to earned?
That’s a wonderful question. I like to think I’ve proven myself, somewhat, to this point. I like to think, hopefully, that my customers see that. I’ve done enough for myself on my own watch, on my own dime and everything, that I hopefully no longer am just the son.
Did you feel that way initially?
It was a change of the guard, and it was always going to be that awkward initial tension. I definitely think the guys didn’t necessarily respect me, at first, and that respect was earned. My father’s on the wall; my grandfather’s on the wall; my heritage and my lineage is here; my bar mitzvah was here. But the thing is, that’s just one story. Every single person who comes here wants to tell me their story. I’m one of a group of people that has a story here. And it’s just that I get to be the one who makes sure we don’t lose this place.
How conscious are you of being a public figure and the face of the brand? It’s the path a lot of chefs and restaurateurs go down today to ensure success.
I think the value of my face is that story that I alluded to. People want to see that there’s a face behind it, or that there’s a great story behind it, or that there’s a lineage. But it’s really tricky. I don’t necessarily want to build a brand for myself. That said, I also wear a Katz’s shirt every single day of my life. You look in my closet and I have 85 Katz’s T-shirts, so I clearly embrace it. But I don’t need to go to Food Network and Travel Channel necessarily to build my personal brand … I do it all for the business, essentially the bottom line. I’m going to do whatever it takes, whatever is necessary, to make sure that New Yorkers have this place for life.
You own the building though, right?
Yeah. We sold the air rights a couple of years ago — which got wildly misreported, and actually it was something that people got really pissed at me about until they understood the whole story.
They were like, “Oh, you sold the building. You sold Katz’s.” And then they were furious at me. No, that’s not what I did. I protected the building. Look at the construction that’s happening now. Are we knocked down? Or are we sitting here in the middle of the restaurant? Is a building hanging over Katz’s? They’re building something a couple stories taller. Who gives a shit? It allowed me to build a warehouse so that I could improve shipping and expand to Brooklyn. I mean, that money doesn’t come out of thin air. It definitely doesn’t come from pastrami. It was a very carefully crafted deal, four or five years ago, with this always being the intention. And this was always my vision for it. I just can’t always share the vision with everyone right away in the moment.
It’s a very sensitive place for so many people.
I get it. Carnegie closed. I wrote an article in the Times. As a New Yorker, not even just as a deli owner, I feel sad about it.
I do, too. But I also think there’s a lot of false nostalgia for old New York. A place will close, and people will bemoan it, but when did they last visit? Was the owner actually happy? I know Katz’s came into your family because the original owner wanted to sell.
I couldn’t agree more. I think sometimes time just creates that, more than anything.
You had originally planned on becoming a doctor. Do you see this as your long-term career path?
Without a doubt. I’m not going anywhere. Maybe 50 years from now I’ll get out of here. That seems like a reasonable time frame. I’ll be really old. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of time. It’s a lot of effort. We have 150 employees. If nothing else, just the payroll, the scheduling — it becomes like a babysitting job sometimes with this many people. But then there are the rewarding moments. Some people come to New York and all they care about on their whole trip is to come to this place. I’m like, I’m sorry, in this whole city with all this amazing stuff, all these shows and art and fashion and historical sites, the No. 1 thing you care about is a deli? Wow. That’s the most humbling thing that can happen, and it happens, thankfully, a lot.