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'I wanted to be in the family business'

The appetizing history of Zabar’s, a New York City culinary icon

A new book from 3rd-generation Lori Zabar, who died months before its publication, traces her family history from pogroms in Ukraine to enduring fame on Manhattan’s Upper West Side

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Zabar's deli in New York City. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Zabar's deli in New York City. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Louis Zabar didn’t live to see his namesake store on the Upper West Side become a celebrated success and a cultural icon.

His granddaughter, Lori Zabar, didn’t live to see her book about the family’s history – “Zabar’s: A Family Story, with Recipes” – hit shelves this week.

But one can only imagine that both members of the now-iconic New York City family would be kvelling to see the fruits of their labor enjoyed by their friends, family, and the hungry hordes.

Lori Zabar, a historic preservationist, art curator and lawyer, died in February at age 67 after a long battle with cancer. In recent years she had devoted herself to chronicling her family’s history from persecution and pogroms in Ukraine to fame and fortune on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

David Zabar, Lori’s brother and the executive director of the famed Zabar’s gourmet shop, known today for its smoked fish, cheeses, and other culinary delights, said the publication of the book this week was the perfect celebration of Lori’s life.

“Because she was sick for a long time, I think this is helping everybody get past it by honoring her, and the excitement,” David told The Times of Israel in a recent interview from New York. “It’s a good thing.”

Lori Zabar and her book, ‘Zabar’s: A Family Story with Recipes.’ (Ellen Dubin/Courtesy)

In 200 pages dotted throughout with recipes for classic Ashkenazi Jewish foods – including matza ball soup, blintzes, latkes, kugel, chopped liver, and gefilte fish – Lori explores her family’s journey.

“It’s not just a family story, a business story, a Jewish story, or even a New York story, but a uniquely American story,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “It encompasses one hundred years of family folklore, behind-the-scenes anecdotes of beloved employees and quirky customers, original Zabar-family recipes (some of which became mainstays of the store), and the evolution of the Upper West Side.”

Readers learn how her paternal grandparents, Lillian Teitelbaum and Louis Zabarka, escaped Ukraine separately amid a spate of pogroms during which Louis’s father and several of his siblings were murdered.

Arriving in New York a year apart in the early 1920s, Lillian and Louis married several years later, after Louis had already graduated from a pushcart selling fruits and vegetables to a small produce shop in Brooklyn. Over the next 20 years, until Louis’s untimely death in 1950, he toiled to become the owner of a chain of markets along Broadway on the Upper West Side.

From left: Eli, Saul, Carole, Devon, Judy, Lori, and Stanley Zabar in Key West, 2013. (Zabar family collection)

But even he would likely be surprised to discover that the store was not only a thriving business in 2022, but a cultural touchstone of New York City that has endured decades of fame and been repeatedly immortalized in film, including a scene in the 1998 classic “You’ve Got Mail.”

The store’s cultural cachet shows no signs of slowing down: In January 2021, Congressman Jerry Nadler raised eyebrows for bringing a Zabar’s shopping bag onto the congressional floor during the impeachment hearing of former president Donald Trump. And just a couple of months ago, Zabar’s and the luxury brand Coach unveiled a bagel-themed collaboration: a $500 sweater or a $550 purse adorned with the store logo.

David told The Times of Israel that while he knew some of the store’s history and his grandparents’ lives before Lori began working on the book, much of it was still news.

“There was a lot of sort of general knowledge, when my grandfather came here, and how he came to the United States, but the real specifics of what happened in Russia… I hadn’t heard anything of that,” he said. “There was a lot that I heard for the first time.”

David Zabar, executive director, outside the store. (Willie Zabar/ © Zabar’s and
Company)

The book doesn’t shy away from some of the store’s historical dramas, including the month that Louis Zabar spent in prison on Riker’s Island for pricing violations, a battle with Cuisinart that ended up in federal court, a pricing war with Macy’s and the eventually settled legal battle between brothers Saul and Stanley Zabar and their business partner, Murray Klein.

Lori doesn’t, however, touch on one of the biggest scandals to rock the store in its history: the discovery in 2011 that the “lobster salad” it had been selling for decades contained no lobster.

She does, however, address the store’s gradual shift from selling only “kosher-style” products to a purveyor of decidedly treyf fare.

“From the get-go, Zabar’s advertised itself as a ‘kosher-style’ store,” wrote Lori. “At least in the early years, you weren’t going to find in Zabar’s such resoundingly non-kosher items as ham, bacon and lobster.” But by 1939, reflecting the changing attitudes of both the Zabar family and the local community, pork and sturgeon had made their way into the store.

But while many things have changed over the store’s close-to nine decades in the business, some things have remained exactly the same: Saul and Stanley Zabar, Louis’s oldest two sons, now 93 and 89, are still involved in the store’s day to day business. (The youngest son, Eli, forged out on his own in the food business, prompting decades of rumors of a feud, but Lori claimed that “contrary to a prevailing myth, Eli and his brothers remain very close.”)

“I was just at two meetings with Stan, talking about the store, about the book, about sales and real estate, about personnel, about HR – he’s very busy,” David said in late April, noting that Saul still deals with the store’s coffee, but is otherwise slowing down as he approaches his 94th birthday next month. “But they’re involved.”

While many present and past culinary icons of New York City are classic immigrant tales, few have remained in the hands of one family for so long. Many immigrants who arrived in the United States and worked in retail wanted their children and grandchildren to pursue other professions. But 80 years on, the fourth generation of Zabars are leaving their mark on the store — behind the counters, behind a camera lens, and behind its social media accounts.

From left: David’s sons Danny, Ben, Willie, and Michael Zabar at the store in 2011. (David Zabar)

Louis sent Saul and Stanley to top schools in New York and to college, said David, but “I think it’s only because my grandfather passed away and my grandmother pulled them back and needed them” that they never quite cut their ties with the business.

Over the years, David said, every generation of Zabar’s included those who pursued other interests and careers, but so many kept coming back to the store, and today many of Louis and Lillian’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren are involved in different capacities.

“Everyone had options of doing other things,” said David. “But I wanted to be in the family business. I like the feel of it. I’ve worked there on and off since I was 12.”

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