The 60,000-square foot DeKalb Market Hall purposely devoted a majority of its headquarters to up-and-coming, Brooklyn-born purveyors. Yet there’s no denying their marquee vendors’ entrenched, Lower East Side cred: that would be the 129-year-old Katz’s, which has peddled pastrami on the corner of E. Houston since 1888.
But to hear owner Jake Dell tell it, the deli’s once-in-a-century expansion could only have happened in Brooklyn. And certainly, even the staunchest borough advocates wouldn’t dream of engaging in border wars, in the face of the city’s (arguably) best kasha knishes, noodle kugel, and mile-high corned beef on rye.
We spoke to Jake about recreating the inveterate Katz’s atmosphere, what sets it apart from the rest of the hot pastrami pack, and how an under-30 named Dell ended up running one of New York’s most senior institutions.
Brooklyn Magazine: I imagine that you’ve been approached numerous times about potential outposts and expansions…why haven’t you made any moves before, and what made you decide to say yes to DeKalb Market Hall?
First off, I think a lot of our regulars are Brooklynites. Either they work in the city and their last stop on their way home is Katz’s for grab-and-go, or the other way around. But it’s getting harder and harder to park around here; traffic’s a pain in the ass. So the idea was to give back to the customers who’ve kept us in business for so long. To open another full restaurant would have been a massive headache, but a quick, just-the-basics takeout version of Katz’s made a lot of sense. I think this makes sense for us, too, in terms of proximity to the original. If there’s an emergency, we can just jet back and forth over the bridge. The neighborhood with MetroTech, LIU, the courts…just made sense. There’s a lot going on over there, and a lot of my customers over there. So I wanted to be part of the DeKalb Market space to give back.
Considering they went out of their way to recruit small-scale, Brooklyn-based businesses, how did it occur to them to even reach out to you?
Anna (Castellani, market director and vendor curator) and I have a mutual friend. I was pretty hesitant at first, but when we spoke, Anna convinced me it would be an amazing space. I’ve turned down a lot of the other food hall-type spaces, like UrbanSpace Vanderbilt. This one has a fun vibe—it’s an adventure. It’s not a food court, it really is a marketplace. It’s vibrant, the energy is great.
While our appetizing game is still pretty strong, do you have any sense of why the classic Jewish deli all but died out in Brooklyn?
Not just in Brooklyn, everywhere. Realistically, it’s a hard business. The restaurant business is hard enough, but the economics of a deli is even harder. If, at a French restaurant, livers go up in price, you can switch gears and start using more fruits and veggies instead. You can adjust your menu to reflect pricing changes. Whereas at a deli, you can’t. If meat prices go up, you’re beholden to that. And so a lot of people, over the course of time, haven’t been able to hold out.
Besides the menu, how does your outpost replicate the classic Katz’s experience?
What people primarily care about is the menu. The thing is, you can’t recreate nostalgia, so we didn’t try. We pay homage and respect to the classics, but we’re ok with being different. If all you’ve ever known about Katz’s is takeout, then it will feel very similar. But if you’re used to waiter service and you’re used to going to the water fountain and walking around the store, it will feel different, no question. No, there’s no ticket system. But we still put pictures on the walls, and recreated all the classic signage and neon, so the visual elements are there. And we brought over some of the staff, so from that perspective, too, it feels the same.
Have you made any changes or are you planning any additions to the menu that are specific to Brooklyn?
No. We’re traditional, and that’s what people want from us.
You are a Dell, not a Katz…how connected were you to the deli growing up, and did you ever even think that you would, one day, end up running it?
You know those scrapbooks you fill out when you’re a kid? My mother used to make me fill one out every year and I always hated it…like, “My Best Friend is So-and-So,” “My Favorite Sport is So-and-So” and “My Teacher is So-and-So.” I recently found one from second grade, and under “I Want to Be,” I had written doctor/owner of Katz’s. So even at a young age, there was a draw to this place. I thought I was going to be a doctor, I took the MCATS, but the lure of the deli got me. Just like it got my father and my grandfather; we’re deli guys through and though.
Sounds like, either way, you would have been a Jewish mother’s dream.
Obviously, you are a very young guy at the reigns of a very old-school, iconic institution. How would you say you’ve tapped into your millennial savvy, to ensure the business remains relevant and profitable today?
I might be the only 75-year-old millennial that exists. But yeah, you have to pay attention to things like social media and you have to look at the comments and try to internalize them. People like to complain and troll, but I’m always going to take their comments to heart and try and fix things and make them better.
Has this outpost opened the floodgates for you, when it comes to future expansions?
No…it’s been three days. It’s still an infant, so we still have to raise this baby. Considering our first kid is 129 years old, we have some catching up to do.
There are still a few other iconic Jewish delis knocking around Manhattan. What, in your estimation, has always set Katz’s apart, and will continue to set Katz’s apart?
I think part of it is the food quality. You’re not going to get a better sandwich done the right way, the old school way, the way it’s supposed to be done. Atmosphere and fun energy sets us apart. And yes, the nostalgia plays its part too. All of those things are really important to the Katz’s identity. We’ve tried to touch on all of them in the new place, but focus remains mostly on the food.
DeKalb Market Hall: 445 Albee Square W., (914) 288-8100