Depending on the day, you might hear the Jewish deli is finished — or flourishing.
But Ziggy Gruber’s dedication to deli is unwavering. And the Houston-based Kenny & Ziggy’s owner is gearing up for his third annual National Deli Month, August 1-31, which spotlights 19 Jewish delis across the country through signature dishes and charity work.
Gruber, star of the hit 2015 documentary Deli Man, also expanded Deli Month’s scope this year. While it launched as New York Deli Month in 2016, the program’s now called National Deli Month. New participants like New York’s Mile End Deli and D.Z. Akins in San Diego have joined stalwarts like Sarge’s in New York and Cleveland’s Corky & Lenny’s.
“I think more of these newer people have reached out - and the oldtimers too - because we want to really spotlight what we do, which is the preservation of Jewish cuisine and of the delicatessen as a centerpiece of our communities,” Gruber told the Forward.
He also acknowledged it’s an uphill battle. Since the first Deli Month, closings have included the 67-year-old Time Deli in San Jose, California; the famed Carnegie Deli, open since 1937 in New York; the 51-year-old Jack’s Deli in Philadelphia; and Lenny’s Deli on Baltimore’s Corned Beef Row. The Forward caught up with Gruber on his way to open Kenny & Ziggy’s for the day.
What’s your elevator pitch for Deli Month?
The delicatessen has always been part of the Jewish community, for all life-cycle events, when we’re happy or sad. We go for bar-mitzvahs and for shivas. People need to come out and support their local delicatessen so it can perpetuate its business, remain a vital part of our community, and doesn’t disappear into the sunset.
One of your Deli Man co-stars, Jay Parker, had to close his Ben’s Best deli in Queens, NY after 75 years. How did the news hit you?
It was devastating. Jay Parker was an excellent operator. His food was good. What hurt him was economics. A lot of his customers were elderly. He lost some parking, they couldn’t park close to him, and that devastated the business. It’s really a tragedy.
What has Deli Month accomplished since you launched it three years ago?
We’re getting local delis a lot of media attention, and every year that seems to grow. As soon as we did this year’s press release, our local partners got calls. And, of course, we’re helping out charities - every partner picks a local charity to benefit. Kenny & Ziggy’s partnered with the Houston Holocaust Museum, which is expanding. We’re even hosting a luncheon in August for Holocaust survivors and liberators. So you could say Deli Month is about bringing awareness and doing a mitzvah.
Is deli food still endangered, as you warned in Deli Man?
What’s sad is that most Jewish people today think sushi is a Jewish food. As we’re getting older, the herring-eaters, as I call them, the old-timers, are disappearing. In another 10 years, you’ll have a generation without links to Europe through their grandparents and the food. We keep on assimilating. Young people gotta start eating more Jewish food. If everyone wants to get all foodie about it, non-Jews think jewish food is really exotic. I can’t tell you how many ethnic groups come into my store, eat kishka, and think it’s exotic.