It’s Broadway’s biggest, longest-running hit.
No, not “Phantom.” Zabar’s.
For nearly 90 years on the Upper West Side, its stars have been its food and staff. Its story has been a carefully choreographed ensemble of caraway-studded rye bread, savory noodle kugel, and lox sliced so thin you could read a newspaper (at least the cover) through it. Naturally, loyal customers keep returning.
Fanny Brice and George Gershwin were early fans. Joseph Heller built his entire Sunday around Zabar’s takeout. And when she’s in town, Barbra Streisand usually orders their sturgeon. For her, they deliver.
“Nora Ephron, who considered Zabar’s the ‘ultimate West Side institution,’ once confessed to the New York Times that her fantasy was to actually be a Zabar,” writes Lori Zabar. “My mother read this and promptly invited her to brunch.”
As a granddaughter of the store’s founders, Louis and Lilly Zabar, Lori grew pretty much up there. All these years later, it’s still a family business. And before she died in February, she finished this fond memoir, “Zabar’s: A Family Story, With Recipes.”
It’s also an American success story, rooted like many in the hardships of the Old World.
Louis Zabar was born Mordko Leib Zabarka in 1901 in Ostropol. Now part of Ukraine, it was then part of Czarist Russia’s Pale of Settlement, an area where Jews were forced to live — and forbidden to leave. Still, for a while, his family prospered. His father owned a lumberyard and sold dry goods. His mother had a maid.
Then came the Revolution.
The region descended into chaos. In 1920, Cossacks, Red Army soldiers, and bandits rampaged through Ostropol, robbing, raping, and killing. Mordko’s father and one of his sisters were murdered. Mordko managed to escape, hiding under hay in a neighbor’s horse-drawn wagon. He made it to Warsaw, then boarded a boat to Canada.
By 1922, he was living in New York, where a distant cousin gave him a job sweeping out his grocery on Second Ave. At night, Mordko slept in the storeroom.
“In 1920s America, almost anyone of limited means could become a grocer,” Zabar writes. “A shop, which sometimes came with an apartment right above it, could be rented inexpensively. A wholesaler might provide goods on credit. The overhead was low because it was the owner and his family who worked 12 to 14 hours a day. ”
After a few years of learning the business, Mordko Leib Zabarka – who by now had Americanized his name to Louis Zabar – struck out on his own. He started at the bottom with a pushcart full of vegetables. Within a few years, he had a small produce shop in Brighton Beach and a wife, Lilly. The family and their business grew. There was only one problem: Louis and produce didn’t get along.
“My grandfather developed an uncomfortable, itchy rash on his arms and hands – an allergic reaction to handling fruit and vegetable skins,” Zabar writes. “Louis did n’t want to live in a perpetual state of skin irritation, and he realized he would have to find some other food items to sell. He soon did and the rest is history.”
In the fall of 1934, Louis and Lilly took the plunge and opened a new store, in Manhattan, on the corner of 80th St. and Broadway. They called it, simply, Zabar’s. Although Jewish grocers traditionally specialized, either opening delicatessens or “appetizing” stores selling smoked fish, the Zabars’ market would be kosher-style. It would sell a little bit of everything to everyone – especially the neighborhood’s growing middle-class.
The next decade would bring challenges and threats. When he left Canada, Louis had entered America illegally. He paid money to a mysterious blackmailer for years to avoid deportation. Louis was finally able to become a US citizen in 1942.
Wartime rationing presented other difficulties. Customers fought in the store over scarce goods. Determined to stay in business, Louis cut a few corners and ignored some regulations.
He was finally arrested and charged with flouting federal price controls. “A parade of ten housewives brandished cans of salmon and beans in the courtroom as evidence,” Zabar writes. Although the grocer’s lawyer blamed the store’s employees, saying they had simply mismarked the items, the judge wasn’t buying it.
“Whenever I hear that plea,” he remarked, “I always wonder whether they ever make errors in favor of the purchaser.”
He sentenced Zabar to four weeks on Riker’s Island.
It was a low point for the family, and others would be ahead. By the end of the ’40s, Zabar – a four-pack-a-day smoker – was in failing health. Lung cancer, the doctors finally diagnosed. Various experimental treatments followed, from sheep gland injections to a crude form of chemotherapy. Nothing worked. Louis Zabar died on March 27, 1950. He was 49.
“Louis’s death was a major turning point for the Zabar family,” his granddaughter writes. “Bound by obligation and love, they knew they had no choice but to move the business forward.”
With Eli only seven, running the business fell to the Zabars’ two older boys, Saul and Stanley, and eventually a partner, Murray Klein. While keeping the store’s traditions alive, they expanded, adding artisanal bread and imported delicacies. They gave the store its deliberately crowded look, hanging pots and strings of salamis from the ceiling, and jamming the aisles with displays.
“If I walk out onto Zabar’s floor and I can see my shoes, it’s not busy enough,” Klein said.
A fierce competitor, Klein’s take-no-prisoners wars became legendary. When Cuisinart first reached America in 1973, the manufacturer’s suggested retail price was $190. Zabar’s sold it at $135. When the company refused to supply Klein unless he raised the price, he simply bought more Cuisinarts at other stores and resold them – still at $135. And with every purchase, he threw in five pounds of coffee beans and a grinder.
“It doesn’t mean anything to me to lose a few thousand dollars to make a point,” he said. Or to win some priceless publicity.
There would be other publicity for the store, some not so favorable. In 1973, disgruntled at not being made a full partner, kid brother Eli left to open his own store on the Upper East Side, EAT
In 1979, Zabar’s was ringed by pickets when its ongoing expansion forced the closure of an SRO hotel. And in 1985, when an exhausted Klein finally asked the brothers to buy him out, he discovered the partnership agreements actually outlawed retirement. The only way to leave was to die, though eventually, a less drastic settlement was reached.
But Zabar’s survived, dishing out bags of brunch supplies and tubs of chopped chicken liver. For those unable to make the trip, Zabar reproduces some of the recipes, a few of which contain surprises. Ginger in the matzoh ball soup? Who knew?
And for those worried about the future – after all, Saul is now 93, and Stanley is 89 – the family urges us not to worry. There’s a fourth generation, already on the scene, keeping an eye on the whole store — lox, stocks, and bagels.
Zabar’s fancier, schmantzier rivals are all gone now. Yet, in an ever-changing city, Zabar’s remains. “New York is Zabar’s,” Lori Zabar concludes. “Zabar’s is New York.”