Katz's deli is crowded in the middle of a weekday afternoon, packed with tourists. All the tables are taken. Seats are being saved. I drift into the back with my hot dog and chocolate egg cream, and find an empty table. An older lady approaches, bearing a tray of fries, pastrami sandwich, and a Doc Brown's cream soda. I motion for her to sit.
Her name is Norma, she lives in Chinatown, and she's been coming to Katz's since she was a girl in the 1940s. "There were four of us kids," she says, "and my father would cut this pastrami sandwich into four pieces, one piece for each of us. That was plenty." Katz's pastrami sandwich is big. Norma only intends to eat half of it, saving the other half to eat in the morning with fried eggs.
"Please," she says, "help me with these French fries." So I do.
A young man asks if he can join us. He's wearing a Katz's t-shirt and carrying a brisket sandwich on a plate. He's friendly, chatting with Norma and me. I figure maybe he's a busboy or a ticket giver. He tells us he's the fifth-generation owner (or third-generation, if you're being picky). He says, "See that sign on the wall that says 'Jake's Bar Mitzvah'? I'm Jake."
Son of Alan, grandson of Martin (a close friend of the original owners), Jake Dell is a mensch. He talks with a boyish passion and excitement about Katz's, the way another guy his age might gush about working for the Yankees--or running an empire of artisanal gastropubs. I ask him how he got involved in the family business. "Since the womb," he says, laughing. "I was handing out tickets when I was six years old." But owning Katz's was never the plan.
Jake was pre-med, with plans to go on to medical school, when he took a year off after college to help out his dad at the deli. "I fell in love with the place, and everything about it made me realize that this is who I was meant to be." He never went on to become a doctor. "When I told my parents I wanted to do this, my mother said, 'Are you sure? Let's think about it,' but my father was grinning from ear to ear."
Before Jake came on board, the future of Katz's was uncertain. His father and uncle were getting older, ready to retire. It was 2009. The neighborhood was filling up with more and more condo towers and luxury hotels. While the family owns the building, rumors circulated that Katz's was not long for this world. Jake says, "I just couldn't imagine it becoming a condo, or having someone else running it. I could not handle that. So it was an easy decision. If I wasn't here, this place would disappear."
Jake loves his job. He loves talking to people and seeing them happy. He loves the food and its traditions. Katz's makes all their pickles in the basement, and behind the dining room wall there's a refrigerated room where 40,000 pounds of meat are pickling. Jake eats three meals a day at the deli. When asked about his heart health, he says, "I go to the doctor a lot to make sure I'm okay." He has no interest in updating the menu. His favorite dish is pastrami on rye, with a little mustard, washed down with a Doc Brown's black cherry soda. (Egg creams are for lighter fare, like hot dogs.)
He has zero interest in changing anything about Katz's. "If we keep things the same," he says, "that's what people love. It's nostalgia."
But he did come up with the idea to deliver--and to celebrate Katz's 125th anniversary with a street party on June 2. "We're shutting down Orchard Street. There's going to be klezmer music, maybe some old vaudeville acts, and a pastrami eating contest. Joey Chestnut, the hot dog eating champ, is going to be here. He told me to set aside six pounds of pastrami for him. He's going to eat it in ten minutes. Six pounds of pastrami! That's a lot of pastrami."
After Jake goes back to work, Norma and I talk and keep working on her pile of French fries. She tells me how she used to go to school with a hot Katz's knish in one pocket, to keep her hands warm on winter mornings, and a pickle in the other. But no matter how many layers of paper she used to wrap the pickle in, her teacher could always smell its strong fragrance, and she'd be forced to throw it out.
"So many memories here," she says. "It sounds silly, but every time I come to this place, I feel spiritually connected to my father."
I tell her there's nothing silly about that. Then we talk more about Katz's and about Jake, how lucky we are to have him, to keep Katz's going. I marvel at how a young man would give up a career in medicine to run the family deli. "That's very rare," I say.
Norma throws up her hands and says, "Oh, we have enough doctors. We don't need any more doctors. We need places like this. It's good for your soul."