The Tasty Story of Zabar’s, a New York City Culinary Icon

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

Her granddaughter, Lori Zabar, did not live to see her family history book, “Zabar’s: A Family Story, with Recipes,” which hit shelves this week.

But one can only imagine that both members of the now-iconic New York City family would be eager 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 the age of 67 after a long battle with cancer. In recent years, she had been chronicling her family’s history, from persecution and pogroms in the Ukraine to fame and fortune on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

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

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

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

In 200 pages peppered with recipes for classic Ashkenazi Jewish meals, including matzah ball soup, blintzes, latkes, kugel, minced 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,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “Spanning a hundred years of family folklore, behind-the-scenes anecdotes from beloved employees and quirky customers, original Zabar family recipes (some of which became store mainstays), and the evolution of the Upper West Side.”

Readers learn how his paternal grandparents, Lillian Teitelbaum and Louis Zabarka, separately escaped Ukraine amid a series of pogroms during which Louis’s father and several of his brothers were killed.

Arriving in New York a year apart in the early 1920s, Lillian and Louis were married several years later, after Louis had already graduated from a fruit and vegetable cart at a small produce store. in Brooklyn. For the next 20 years, until Louis’s untimely death in 1950, she strove 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 probably be surprised to discover that the store was not only a thriving business in 2022, but a New York City cultural touchstone that has endured decades of fame and has been repeatedly immortalized in movies, including a scene in the 1998 classic.” You’ve got mail.”

The store’s cultural cachet shows no signs of slowing: In January 2021, Congressman Jerry Nadler drew attention for bringing a Zabar shopping bag to the floor of Congress during former President Donald Trump’s impeachment hearing. And just a couple of months ago, Zabar’s and luxury brand Coach unveiled a bagel-themed collaboration: a $500 sweater or $550 tote emblazoned with the store’s logo.

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

“There was a lot of general knowledge, when my grandfather came here and how he got to the United States, but the actual details of what happened in Russia… I hadn’t heard any of that,” he said. “There were a lot of things that I heard for the first time.”

David Zabar, CEO, outside the store. (Willie Zabar/ © Zabar’s and
Business)

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

Lori, however, fails to mention one of the biggest scandals in the store’s history: the discovery in 2011 that the “lobster salad” she had been selling for decades contained no lobster.

However, it does address the store’s gradual shift from selling only “kosher-style” products to a purveyor of decidedly Treyf fee.

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

But while much has changed during the store’s nearly nine decades in business, some things have remained exactly the same: Saul and Stanley Zabar, Louis’s two eldest sons, now 93 and 89, are still involved in the day. to shop day. deal. (The youngest son, Eli, worked his way up in the food business, sparking decades of rumors of a feud, but Lori claimed that “contrary to prevailing myth, Eli and his brothers are still very close to each other.”) United”).

“I was just in two meetings with Stan, talking about the store, about the book, about sales and real estate, about staff, about human resources; he’s very busy,” David said in late April, noting that Saul still runs the store. coffee, but otherwise he’s slowing down as he approaches his 94th birthday next month. “But they are involved.”

While many New York City past and present culinary icons are classic immigrant tales, few have remained in the hands of one family for as long. Many immigrants who came to the United States and worked in retail wanted their children and grandchildren to pursue other careers. But 80 years later, the fourth generation of Zabars is making their mark on the store: behind the counters, behind a camera lens, and behind their 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 New York schools and college, David said, but “I think it’s only because my grandfather passed away and my grandmother got them back and needed them” that they never severed their ties to the business.

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

“Everyone had options to do other things,” David said. “But I wanted to be in the family business. I like how it feels. I have worked there on and off since I was 12 years old.”

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