Every year, thousands of people travel to New York City to taste the legendary pastrami, corned beef and other Jewish deli classics of Katz’s Delicatessen. We sat down with Jake Dell, the deli’s third-generation owner, to see what keeps customers coming back.
At one point, you were studying medicine. What made you decide to take on the family business?
It’s something that my father and uncle did for many years and my grandfather did years before that. I grew up here. I grew up in the business. As an adult, being here is intoxicating. The customers are wonderful, the staff is wonderful. To be able to serve a classic tradition — not just food, but an experience — is unlike anything else.
As you continue to grow the business, which traditions are you honoring and which are you changing?
All of the food traditions can never be changed. It’s the core of who we are. All the classic foods — pastrami, corned beef, brisket, turkey, matzoh ball soup — need to be prepared in a very traditional way. That’s something that will never change. On the other hand, there is efficiency-related things that can always be improved. It’s the non-glamourous accounting or inventory tasks… the things that no one sees but are crucial to the business. That’s where innovation, change and growth can happen. The restaurant business is very different from the business of restaurants.
How has food delivery changed your business?
The experience of the deli isn’t going to change, but I can bring the experience closer to you. I can grow my catering business. I can send a cutter to your party, corporate event or wedding. I can make it more convenient for you. I can ship and order to any state. I opened up in Brooklyn to make it easier for people to grab and go. There are these different elements that support the core of who we are without changing that core; it’s bringing the classics closer to people, making them more accessible. Every day we’re sending orders from Oregon to Florida and California up to Maine and everywhere in between. Sometimes it’s ex-New Yorkers who are craving it. Other times its someone who saw the deli on Food Network and want to experience it for themselves.
You have such a loyal customer base. What do you think keeps people coming back?
It’s the food. It’s the nostalgia. It’s the atmosphere. It’s everything. That’s why it’s so important for us to maintain these traditions.
What advice do you have for an aspiring restaurant owner?
It’s a hard business. It’s a grind. We have the advantage of being 130 years old, and it’s still difficult. Every day presents a totally random and unique set of challenges. Anyone who is in the business knows what I mean when I say there are metaphorical or literal fires every single day. If you like that problem-solving, on-the-spot mentality, then you’ll be okay.
Do you have a favorite celebrity that you’ve served at Katz?
Danny DeVito is a regular, he’s great. [laughs] But I don’t give anyone special treatment. They still have to wait in line. If I start choosing favorites, they’re going to want to cut the line and I can’t have that.