Save the Deli

Milton Parker: The Passing of a Deli Man

Sad news to report today. Milton Parker, the legendary owner of the Carnegie Delicatessen, passed away last Friday at the well-lived age of 90.

To anyone who knows the New York deli business, Parker’s name was legendary. He and partner Leo Steiner purchased the Carnegie Delicatessen in 1976, and transformed it into one of the most successful delis in all of America.

Before Parker, the Carnegie was one of many well known delis near Times Square, but by emulating the massive portions and showbiz-friendliness of the nearby Stage Delicatessen, Parker turned the Carnegie into a phenomenon. The so called “Pastrami War” between the two delis resulted in both having massive lines snaking out the front, drawing locals and tourists alike for towers of meat that no sane person could properly digest. They began curing their pastrami, corned beef, and tongue in-house, and eventually set up an off-site commissary to make their meats and famous cheesecakes, first in the Lower East Side, and later in New Jersey. Parker and Steiner made the Carnegie Delicatessen a destination, an institution, and a New York landmark.

In the history of delicatessens, Milton Parker’s carnegie deli caused more heartburn to the Jewish world than anything I’ve ever heard of. His pastrami sandwich was incredibly much too large for human consumption. I will never forget having dinner one night while doing a fundraiser for Gary Hart’s presidential campaign, and Hal Linden, Barney Miller and I were starving and went to the Carnegie. We all made a terrible mistake and each ordered a pastrami sandwich. There was enough food there for 11 people. Milty was an incredible deli man and a superstar and I’m sorry to hear of his demise. — Freddie Roman, comedic legend and Dean of the Friar’s Club

Milton Parker was born on Jan 10, 1919 in Brooklyn, the breeding ground of a great generation of deli men. His parents died while he was still young, and he grew up poor. He began working at luncheonettes and diners around Brooklyn and Long Island, learning the restaurant trade. When Levittown, the first cookie cutter suburb, opened in 1937 in Long Island, Parker opened a coffee shop there.

At the Carnegie, Parker always wore a million dollar smile and insisted that the customer was always right. He worked every shift he could, from the cashier to the counterman, to learn the deli trade and become a bona fide deli man. Though he’d spent his life in the restaurant industry, Parker had never operated a deli. “Don’t worry Milton,” Steiner told him, when the took over the place, “I’ll carry you until you learn the deli business.” Steiner was the frontman, the visible, shtick happy maven who paled around with show-business faces, while Parker was the back room brains. When Leo Steiner died in 1987, Parker became the face of the deli overnight.

Reflecting on his partner’s death in an interview shortly after, Parker was unsentimental, yet funny: “When someone dies, I don’t think it’s right to keep bringing him up” he said, “I miss Leo, and I’d like to have him sitting here at the deli instead of me. I’d be in Aruba.”

Parker continued to build the business after Steiner’s death. He opened, and then closed, franchised branches around the country, built the bigger commissary, and increased the size of the sandwiches even higher. He lived for the deli, and his business card read “Milton Parker, CPM (Corned beef and pastrami maven)”. Up until his final days of working he refused to use a computer or calculator and relied on a pencil and paper. He was old school in that way, and yet he kept the place up with the times.

He was a good guy who worked his way up just like my father did, and came into his own in the deli. He was able to live out his last many years there, and enjoy the fruits of his labor and pass it on to the next generation. We were competitive, sure, but he was always a mensch. — Steve Auerbach, owner of the Stage Delicatessen

In 2002, at age 84, he decided to retire full time, and handed the reins of the business to his son-in-law Sandy Levine, whose own business card reads MBD (Married Bosses Daughter). “Milton has been in the deli business for years, and he always knows what’s best for the deli.” Levine said, “I only tried to follow his example.” When he wasn’t in Florida, Parker was found at the deli, shmoozing with customers, hanging out behind the counter, and just soaking up the world he helped nourish.

One of Parker’s lasting legacies was writing the very humorous memoir “How to Feed Friends and Influence People. The Carnegie Deli: A Giant Sandwich, A Little Deli, A Huge Success.

A deli man of Parker’s stature comes along very seldom.
In the first pages of that book, Parker laid out his principals of success. Their worth repeating here as a lesson for all the aspiring deli owners out there:

1. Keep it Simple
2. Do one thing better than anyone else
3. Create a family atmosphere among the staff
4. Promote from within
5. Have an open ear to staff and customer comments
6. Make it yourself
7. Own the premises
8. Management is always responsible
9. Do not be greedy
10. Have fun working

It may sound like common sense, and much of it is, but these are among the most important reasons why the Carnegie Deli is thriving, while dozens of other delis that surrounded it when Parker took over are now long gone. Sure, being a deli owner requires a love of the food and a feeling for the shtick, but it’s foremost a business, and Parker excelled at keeping that vision on track.

I knew Milton from his years at the Carnegie and his wife because she frequented a Ben’s near her Jericho home years ago. I really know Sandy, M.B.D. (married the boss’s daughter) much better but I will tell you that as frugal (in a good sense) as he was, he loved the gargantuan sandwiches for which the Carnegie was well known. — Ronnie Dragoon, owner Ben’s Kosher Delis

My first meal in New York was at the Carnegie Deli, and it was the first meal on the next three visits back. Though it’s harried, and crazy, and packed with tourists, Parker’s greatest legacy is how real he kept the place. It doesn’t feel contrived or manufactured. It feels like a warm, sweaty embrace from a distant but loving relative. It overflows with comedy and tumult, with grease and fat and salt, with portions so insanely large, they seem criminal, and with an unmistakable sense of New Yorkishness. It’s overwhelming and delicious and wonderful, and as long as it remains open, Milton Parker’s legacy will shine on.

He is survived by his wife of 62 years, Mildred, his daughter Marian, son Jeffrey, granddaughter Sarri and brother Irving.

“He always said that he wanted to pass with a hot dog in his mouth, so at his funeral I dedicated a real hot dog to him in his honor. ” — Marian (Parker) Levine

He will be missed.

Please post your tributes to Milton Parker in the comments below. Shiva is over tomorrow, but donations can be made in his name to The City of Hope charity.

10 Responses to “Milton Parker: The Passing of a Deli Man”

  1. Stu Shiffman Says:

    Another sad loss of the earlier generation. I hope that he was buried on white porcelain with a pile of rye and jar of mustard on the side.

  2. Lauren Says:

    Well I guess you can eat deli and live a long life. So there!

  3. Todd Says:

    Before they bought the Carnegie, they owned Pastrami & Things on Third Ave. & 22nd St.

  4. Eric Says:

    A mench to all who knew him, Mr Parker’s corned beef and pastrami gave more unbridled pleasure to generations of Jewish men than their wives.

  5. Jeffrey Mintz Says:

    He would always say “have a pickle” and talk to his loyal customers. He was one of a kind. He was a very good customer and friend of Captain Post food service and he will be missed.

  6. Melissa Says:

    I worked for Milton Parker and Leo Steiner for over a decade, beginning in 1979. I was the night cashier, and spent many a wee morning hour under Mr. Parker’s tutelage and supervision. I used to say there was nothing (and perhaps no one!) I hadn’t seen at the Carnegie, and my years of training there have served me so well in all my subsequent work and life. I am grateful to Mr. Parker, and to his memory. He was a tough and very private man, but always found a way to express kindness to me, and even joy when we encountered one another in subsequent years. My sincere condolences to Millie, Marian, Jeffrey, and Sandy.

  7. richard Says:

    i never knew either owner, but i used to go often to the carnegie as a student at columbia, it was a great way to unwind after a day of professors and research and writing. or after a concert at the hall of the same name just up the street. it was not cheap, but you got two meals for your money – half the sandwich at the deli, the other to take home for lunch the next day. besides, nothing was more soothing and satisfying than a bowl of their matzoh ball soup on a cold february night. never went there but that i was made to feel at home and welcome, even on a student budget. never ate a meal there that i didn’t feel ready for the next day’s academic battles. sorry to learn of mr. parker’s passing.

  8. Gerry Says:

    My father has been a counterman for close to 30 years at the Carnegie. In the summer of 82 he took me to work one day and introduced me to Leo and to Mr. Parker (I never called him Milton). I got up the courage and asked them on the spot for a summer job while I was on break from school. They said yes and I was the youngest employee (14 years old) they had. I will never forget the three summers I worked there. I will always be grateful to both of them, Leo and Mr. Parker were tough but fair. Many lessons I learned from them will never be forgotten.
    I am now 41 and still say proudly my first job was at the Carnegie Deli. My condolences to the family.

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