By Lara Tabbara.
“Food and nostalgia keep the store alive,” said Jake Dell, who is in charge of the famous Katz Delicatessen. He does not want to see another Deli close its doors and lose the battle against a changing neighborhood. Jewish family-owned businesses inhabit Manhattan’s Lower East Side and are proud to claim their culture. It is especially in the food industry that tradition is embraced, creating an umbrella against the storms of alteration and mechanization. Some of the iconic survivors are Katz’s Delicatessen, Streit’s and Kossar’s Bialys.
Manual work, as opposed to machinery, is what these three places have in common. Employees rely on their trained and skilled hands in order to produce delicious goods.
For Kossar’s Bialy’s, a local Jewish bakery that has proudly inhabited Grand Street since the 1960s, bread based products are their specialty. Daniel, who preferred not to reveal his last name, the manager, said, “the baking is in front of your face,” as soon as a customer walks in, it is impossible to ignore the large ovens and bread trays conveying fresh pastries.
Similarly to Kossar’s, the 85 year old Streit’s factory on Rivington Street is a maze of conveyor belts carrying warm, fresh matzo. The employees, lined up formatzo preparation, work long, efficient shifts, said Alan Adler, the grandson of Aaron Streit, who is in charge of the operation.
The pastrami experts from Katz’s Deli will be celebrating their 125thanniversary this summer. Jake Dell, who took over his family business, now runs the famous deli on East Houston and wants to keep the Jewish food tradition alive.
Katz’s pastrami assortment is their key to sales. According to Dell, who has lived to watch the Deli flourish, pastrami is the “world’s manliest sandwich.” It conceived a “special community” on the Lower East Side, added Dell.
Streit’s matzo, especially during Passover, is “more of an art than a science,” said Adler. Their meticulously flavored tender white matzo has not changed since the 1920s. According to Adler, if the family- owned factory purchases new machinery, the greatest impact will be on the taste of the matzo.
Likewise, if Kossar’s were to mechanize the production of their Bialys, the taste would suffer. Daniel explained that the company retained its traditional values because they have been producing and selling the “same product for 80 years,” and, more importantly, it is handmade, making it a “tourist attraction.”
Daniel recognized that his clientele itself has changed with the gentrification of the LES, “demographics changed, it is less Jewish and the folks are less old.” He believes that business is not doing better, as opposed to the past, because of the different dietary preferences of the population, “people don’t eat bread as much.”
Katz’s, Streit’s and Kossar’s do not consider leaving their locations on the Lower East Side. They stay for a number of reasons, including nostalgia. “Once upon a time Bialys was a food staple,” said Daniel. Adler also confidently emphasized his iron embrace of tradition: “We’re never moving; we’re here for the long run.”
The Lower East Side is a window to Jewish culture and tradition. Every year these places celebrate their anniversaries, ultimately celebrating the neighborhood’s survival against New York City’s urban landscape change.