Monday, December 5, 2011

History of the B&H

New York's great small places are not often included in the history records. They linger, or they vanish, leaving us to wonder about their stories. The B&H Dairy in the East Village is one of those places. As a longtime fan and customer, I was excited to hear from Florence Bergson Goldberg, the daughter of B&H founder Abie Bergson. She was kind enough to share her family photos and stories.


today


Bergson Goldberg: The B&H circa 1970s

Ms. Goldberg recalls, "My dad started his business on a handshake. He had worked as a waiter in a store across the street from where the B&H stands. When he decided he wanted to start his own business, he approached many of the restaurant supply merchants on the Bowery. They knew my father to be an honest man, and they all gave him credit with just a handshake."

"The B&H opened either in 1937 or 1938. Originally, B&H stood for Bergson and Heller. Later on, Mr. Heller left the business, and my father's friend, Sol Hausman, became his second partner, still B&H. Sol came up with an idea that B&H could also stand for 'Better Health.'"

The B&H was successful, but it never expanded and never really changed. As Ms. Goldberg recalls, "So many businesses, when they do well, begin to expand in the hope of 'making a killing.' My dad never thought in those terms. He would rather have had people waiting for seats than seats waiting for people."


Bergson Goldberg: The mom & pop, 1950s

Mr. Bergson and his partner sold the B&H around 1970. In 1978, counterman Leo Ratnofsky was profiled in the New Yorker's Talk of the Town. To hear Leo tell it, the B&H was the same in 1978 as it was in 1940 when he began--and as it still is today. The story is filled with buttered slices of homemade challah, bowls of soup, fresh-squeezed oranges, hungry crowds, and even "a meticulous Ukrainian" cook in the tiny back kitchen with a scarf on her head who now and then peeks out to see what's going on. I imagine she was back there peeling potatoes and mashing beets, just as her doppelganger is today.

In the New Yorker story, Leo calls out "Jumbo jockey!" when a customer leaves a tip of a quarter (or more), and the countermen mumble their thank-you's.

Ms. Goldberg remembers this B&H tipping ritual well. She says, "Whenever someone would leave a tip for them, my dad or his partner would tap the coins on the counter and call out 'Jockey!' to let them know a tip was left and allow them to say thank you."


Bergson Goldberg: The boss & his countermen

Said Leo on his last day of work, "I'll tell you truthfully--I don't feel bad about leaving the place. I've got bad feet, my fingernails are being eaten away from squeezing oranges. But to leave all these people--that makes me feel like crying. These actors and actresses, the hippies, the yippies, the beatniks, the bohemians, people who've run away from God knows where--I've always felt an attraction to them. Especially the starving ones."

Ms. Goldberg remembers the actors, too. She recalls how they "visited the store when they rehearsed at the Orpheum Theater. They loved my dad, and they loved the food served at the B&H. Among the many celebrities who graced the B&H were Shelly Winters, Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Jack Klugman, and Rocky Graziano to name just a few."

Leo recalls Molly Picon coming in to chat with Abie Bergson over a bowl of soup--Bergson was an aspiring actor, too, and when lower Second Avenue was Yiddish Broadway, says Leo, "The streets were so crowded you had to walk in the gutter."


photo by Tony Marciante, 1968

"The store was more than a place to eat," says Ms. Goldberg. "It was a place where friends got together to trade stories about their workday and their families. It was a happy place, and some of my fondest memories were of my many times spent at the store with my mom and dad."

As Leo put it in 1978, "This place has always had a spirit." It still does.


today

33 comments:

EV Grieve said...

Lovely. Long live B&H.

Alex said...

B & H was my saving grace back when I was at Hunter College and living on East 7th Street and had, literally, no money most of the time. I still think of it fondly (along with the old Kiev)

Melanie said...

Great piece. I remember Leo--Hi Leo!!!The challah is the very best and so is the rice pudding. Veggie matzo ball soup rocks too.Hi to the lady in the scarf. She bakes the killer challah.

Tricia said...

Great to read about a legendary spot that's still around. The photos and reminiscences are wonderful. Isn't it funny how pix from the 1960s and '70s look like the 1930s and '40s? So much has changed in the City that the 1970s almost feels like a century ago. Stetson Hats replaced by Himalayan Visions says it all for me

Anonymous said...

This is excellent! B&H has been a favorite of mine for many years. I visit it almost every time I'm in the neighborhood - which is less and less often these days, unfortunately. - Storko

Anonymous said...

Beautiful story! Living testimony to the old East Village.

pennys herb co. said...

thank you!!!
great great article!!
we still live down the block.
as kids we knew leo n dave.....
later on leo worked at the grand st. dairy.
leo you were special!!!!!!

Jeremiah Moss said...

in the first pics, look at how big that little tree has grown. the B&H, by comparison, hasn't changed much at all.

Tom said...

I think I've had B&H's Matzo Ball Soup and Buttered Challah about 900 times -- once a week (they used to sell it only on Fridays) for the 17 years I lived around 2nd Ave & 5th St.

I wish someone would post a picture of Dave, the counterman I used to see there in the 70s and 80s.

Barry Joseph said...

Lovely, thank you. In my mind I can still taste the thick challah dipped into the chicken soup and just dripping with awesome.

Sean said...

Back in 1969, I arranged to have a meeting with one of the Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_Against_the_Wall_Motherfuckers , a tough street/anarcho/political crew, to let them know that one of their members, Mook, was rumored to be a police informant. The meeting place was decided by one of the Motherfuckers to be B&H.

I was waiting at B&H for the guy to arrive, and ordered some kind of fritter. When the Motherfucker arrived, dressed in leather, bandana, and grubby jeans, he sat down next to me, and grabbed the plate of unfinished food that some customer left behind and began gobbling it down!
So much for civility and hygiene.

Well, we began talking and the fitter arrives. I takes one bite, but it was so greasy I just leave it there.

After we had our little tete-a-tete, the Motherfucker and I were about to leave, and the B&H guy behind the counter, looks at the Motherfucker's now-empty plate, and my full one, picks up one of my fritters, grabs it hard, squeezing out all the frying fat, dripping it back onto my plate, looks me in the eye, and asks, "Wassa matta? You don't like grease?"

Shortly afterwards, the Motherfuckers left NYC to start a commune in New Mexico.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Sean, thank you for that amazing story. love it.

Carol Vinzant said...

I love B&H. When I was pregnant we'd go nearly every Friday night. I could get a HUGE plate of veggies and a so delicious grilled cheese. I hope my daughter craves it when she grows up.

abrod said...

Judging by the car parked in front, the photo's more likely from the early 1980s - the car is a Mazda RX-7 Series II, introduced in 1981. Not important, just figured I'd let you know.

Scott Schnipper said...

Thanks for this. Been a loyal B&H customer since the late 1970s, with especially frequent visits in the 80s when I lived on Ludlow and then on East 9th Streets.

But I always make it a point to stop in when I'm in the nabe. Alas, the cinnamon-raisan challah has been discontinued, and I miss the old counter help, but it still doesn't get much better.

Many is the time a Special O (omelette) bailed me out of some moments. And the hot borscht and the mushroom barley. All praise to the B&H.

julie wilson said...

I have a great picture of dave behind the counter if your interested!

Jeremiah Moss said...

Julie, please send it!

Nathan said...

Great piece on a great restaurant. I enjoy their food so much (especially because, as a vegetarian, their menu has many options for me).

Thanks for sharing the old pictures and stories about this neighborhood institution.

Marty Wombacher said...

I have to echo the other comments, wonderful post, Jeremiah, thanks!

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Wow. Great photos! Great stuff.

kim said...

Lovely tribute. It's wonderful how you could order a dish or artery-clogging dish along side a 'healthy' veggie over brown rice right there. Long live B&H!

Mark said...

When I lived on East 6th Street back in 1975 (rent: $135.00 a month)I survived on B & H cabbage soup and those huge rafts of challah and butter. Wonderful!

chris flash said...

I remember counterman Raoul, who worked there from 1960-2000, when he retired. I'd go there for the $1.00-$1.50 breakfast special (remember that???): eggs, potatoes, toast with juice, just about every day. Raoul would have CBS blasting oldies and he would sing, make jokes as he filled orders. That guy was a blast!

B+H was then and is now one of the very few remaining time capsule examples of old New York.

rj said...

great story! thanks!

Anonymous said...

I've got photos of Leo,Dave and Raoul somewhere.I loved the place in the mid 70's.....miss Dave's ventriloquist moments.Leo's chopped herring and babka french toast.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

Fantastic post. Thanks! With B&H & Stage around, there's still some happiness!

Melanie said...

A shout out to Gus too!!He was the best too!

BabyDave said...

Just caught up with this great post. Long live the B&H!

laura rubin said...

i had the pea soup before school. 1968-1970. also the tuna sandwiches on whole wheat bread. i lived about 2 blocks south, across the street. i lived on top of hebrew national deli, they made good sandwiches as well. but nothing compared to B&H soups & cozy atmosphere.

Ukrainian Girl said...

Love this place... Hot borshcht almost as good as my grandmother's- and this coming from a Ukrainian!
Great Article

Anonymous said...

had the challah recently and it seems like someone has messed with the recipe.
it was really not the version i love and fondly remember. what happened?

ebwally said...

Anonymous - you got that challah to go, I bet (pre-wrapped) - and it'll never be as good as the newly sliced, buttered on a plate. I remember Raoul very well too as I was a breakfast special regular from 1998 to 2006 ... he told me Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin used to love it there too. Forever B&H!

laura r. said...

i lived on 2nd ave, was a regular @ B&H from 1968 to 1970. i would have breakfast there before school. if it was a late class, it would be lunch. the pea soup was amazing. most of the food was natural & tasty. a cozy place, so nice to sit there. i have no memory of rock&roll people or anything hip. just older folks. looks like the area is more about chinese food now rather than polish or jewish food. (the current photos). i hope this place never closes.