Most delis I know close early at night, not usually after 8pm. I get why this happens. Owners want to get home after being in the deli all day, and in many cases deli customers are older and generally don’t eat late at night. But I think delis are missing a key chunk of business…the late night noshers.
I bring this up because I got word this week that Russ and Daughters, home to the finest appetizing and smoked fish on earth, will be extending their hours to reflect the changing face of the Lower East Side (from elderly immigrants and crackheads to hipsters and young professionals). It will now be open until 8pm on weekdays.
“Our hours of operation should best reflect and serve our community,” says Niki Russ Federman, 4th
Generation. “For years, opening later and closing earlier made sense because very few of our
customers actually lived on the Lower East Side. Coming to Russ & Daughters was a special trip for
most. But, times and the neighborhood have changed. We still have many of the same customers who
have been with us for 40, 50, 60+ years, but we also have a newer and younger base of customers
who are now our neighbors or visitors to the neighborhood. With our new weekday hours, we can cater
to the crowds on their way to and from work. In the morning, locals can grab a cup of fresh roasted
coffee, a bagel and lox, as well as our expanded line of homemade bakery items. And then, in the
evenings, folks can stop in to shop on their way home.”
The old schedule of store hours dated back to the 1970s, a time when few wanted to be on the Lower
East Side in the early morning or late at night. Earlier than that, though, from the 1930s through the
1950s, Russ & Daughters stayed open until well after midnight on Saturdays, to accommodate the
crowds streaming out of performances at the Yiddish theater. The shop was busy late into the night
and mobbed again on Sundays.
Sure, 8pm is hardly late night, though it’s a step in the right direction. Let’s make no bones about it folks, deli is a sinful food. It’s rich, fatty, salty, and perfectly suited for that comfort craving in the wee hours. Many great delis are open late, including the Carnegie, Stage, the 2nd Ave Deli, and Katz’s. In Los Angeles, several delis are open nearly 24hrs a day, the most famous being the temple of craziness that’s Canter’s. They cater to showbiz folk coming off a set of standup comedy, of musicians grabbing a bite before or after a gig, and of theatergoers hungry after a show. I’ve known many a great late night at Caplansky’s in Toronto, or Schwartz’s in Montreal. On the road I’ve gotten wasted with my latkes at 11 City Diner in Chicago and shared salami and egg tacos with a random couple at Katz’s, in Austin.
What I’m saying is that there’s a kind of magic in a late night deli that you don’t find during the day. The staff is more relaxed, there’s no crush of tourists, and people tend to interact with each other on a more communal level. “Here, try this.” someone will shout at the table next to them, holding forth a plate of rugelach for a pretty girl to taste. Years ago, my cousin Stephen Lack and his cousin/friend Leonard Cohen (the one), used to hang out at Montreal’s Main deli and watch the gangsters, pimps, and wrestlers dance around the night. The nights at Canter’s have produced everything from Frank Zappa freakouts to Lenny Bruce overdoses and the discovery of Guns n’ Roses.
That magic is something that a lot of delis are missing, and with it a whole new generation of customers. I often hear deli owners telling me that they’re going to bring in younger clients by installing plasma screens (god no), or adding salads and sushi to their menus (please don’t). If they want to capture that younger generation they should stay open later. Get the bored high school students, the high college kids, and the bar hopping hipsteratti, toss a little matzo ball their way, and watch how their face changes. Deli should own the night.