Fish ’Net

Sturgeon King’s Old-World Taste Catches Customers Across America, Thanks to a New-World Technology

By Jeremy Caplan

Published November 21, 2003, issue of November 21, 2003.
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With bagels and lox stuffed into his suitcase, Eli Levy used to travel back from New York to his home in Aventura, Fla., with a weekend’s supply of traditional Jewish brunch food in tow. But between such trips, Levy would find himself hungering for a fix of fancy fish from Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt and other Greengrass groupies over the years, Levy needed Greengrass fish like those fish once needed water. Now he’s got a shortcut.

Barney Greengrass — aka the Sturgeon King, an Upper West Side institution — launched an online delivery service two weeks ago, following this fall’s three-month test phase. The site, BarneyGreengrass.com, offers everything from the traditional bagels and lox to borscht, blintzes and rugelach. Gary Greengrass, the store’s third-generation owner and manager, says it was time to update the family business. “It’s like having a telephone,” Greengrass said. “It’s just part of doing business these days.”

“We’re still hand-slicing our fish, doing everything that we’ve always done,” Greengrass said. “Now we’re just matching up Old-World New York with New-World technology.”

And that new technology allows food orders to arrive within 24 hours of a buyer’s mouse click — with the help of Federal Express overnight delivery. Food stays fresh thanks to synthetic dry-ice packing tubes.

Novelist Joel Rose took advantage of the new site recently to order a bagel platter for a cousin in North Carolina who had just given birth. “Everybody gives outfits,” Rose said, “but for new parents, getting this is a real treat.”

For Greengrass, births and burials are big sources of orders. “When people come into the world we get the order,” he said. “And when they leave the world, unfortunately, we get an order for that, too.”

Even as it goes high-tech, there’s a low-tech style to the Barney Greengrass online service, much like the informal feel of the eatery itself. When an online order comes in, Zachary Schenker, one of the store’s managers, gets buzzed on his beeper and goes to check his e-mail, often in the store’s basement office. Schenker reads and prints out each order. Then the orders are typed into an old-fashioned Greengrass shipping list. Once everything is ready, the customers get a call and an e-mail so they know their food is on the way. One of the first Web orders went out earlier this month to Florence, Ariz., where a customer wanted a pound each of nova, sturgeon and sable, and two pounds of scallion cream cheese, 24 bagels and six bialys. It totaled $245, including $81 for shipping.

So far the site has drawn about 50 orders at an average price of about $150 each. Shipping costs account for almost half of the cost of an order, in part because of the express delivery. But the restaurant is known for its quality, not for bargains: A bagel and lox sandwich alone costs $11. And that doesn’t include a glass of borscht.

Occasionally, a problem arises calculating shipping costs because an order’s weight can be hard to predict. When someone requested 10 quarts of matzo-ball soup with 100 matzo balls recently, the package ended up at nearly 100 pounds. That tipped the order above $300.

The Web site shuts down just before Yom Kippur and other key holidays so as not to get overloaded with requests that can’t be filled on time. The biggest orders tend to come not only on major Jewish holidays, but also on Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s and Mother’s and Father’s Days. More than half of Greengrass’s shipments are gifts, often to displaced New Yorkers. One recent order was from someone in one part of Iowa for someone in another. On busy days, Greengrass ships out a couple hundred pounds of salmon.

Of all the foods Greengrass carries, there’s only one he won’t ship: chopped liver. “It’s a very perishable item,” Greengrass said. “In my grandfather’s day, they would ship this sort of item with a label that said, ‘If not delivered in three days, never mind.’”

But why bother with a Web site for a business that has thrived since 1908 in New York, and since 1929 in the same Upper West Side spot on Amsterdam Avenue just north of 86th Street?

“Adding a Web site is a way for us to generate more business during the weekdays, when it’s quieter here at the restaurant,” Greengrass said. “Bagels and lox are a weekend business, so this is a way to spread things out throughout the week.”

New York theater producer Annette Niemtzow recently spent $200 on a platter for a friend’s 60th birthday in California. After agonizing about what gift to give, she finally settled on fish. “I knew it would give her bragging rights on her block for years to come,” Niemtzow said. “I’m glad Greengrass is not just online but still in Manhattan. It’s great that people rooted in the traditions of the Upper West Side continue to produce old-style food.”

Greengrass has had a telephone delivery service for years, but the Web site is designed to attract a new set of customers, those more inclined to log on for food than to dial up. And since there are no print ads for Barney Greengrass, the Web site helps spread the word about the restaurant. “We don’t advertise; we appetize,” Greengrass said.

And back in Florida, Levy has finally gotten his fish fix. He shared a heaping plate of Greengrass sturgeon, herring, bialys, bagels and borscht with a group of friends. “I’m still in Aventura,” Levy said, “but I feel like I’m somewhere between heaven and New York.”

Jeremy Caplan, who writes for Time, lives in New York City.






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