Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman(Photo/Cathleen Maclearie)
Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman (Photo/Cathleen Maclearie)

Saul’s owners seeking buyer to keep Jewish deli tradition alive in Berkeley

For sale: 30-year-old restaurant located in world-renowned gourmet ghetto. Under same ownership for past two decades. Seats 110. Longest standing of its kind in East Bay. Pastrami smoker, deli counter and large stockpot for matzah ball soup included. New parklet in front. Price: negotiable.

Then again, maybe a classified ad isn’t the best way for co-owners Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman to let everyone know that they’re ready to head off into the sunset and sell their baby, Saul’s Restaurant and Deli in Berkeley. Perhaps a personal ad would better express what they are seeking:

Saul's Deli owners Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman (Photo/Cathleen Maclearie)

Devoted to deli, or willing to develop a devotion? Longtime Jewish business partners are interested in finding a talented successor in late 20s or early 30s with high-level kitchen experience. Must have a passion for cooking and willingness to apply it to Jewish deli. Love of food, culture and heritage is a must, but so is good business sense. Financial wherewithal not as vital as commitment to running Saul’s for another 20 to 30 years. Being a mensch wouldn’t hurt, either.

“We’re at a precarious little moment,” said Adelman, who bought Saul’s with Levitt in 1996. “What happens to this deli? The thing about committing 20 years to a place like this is that it’s not easy to walk away from.

“We used to joke about the different [restaurant] corporations we could sell to, but in actuality we don’t want to do that at all. It’d be much better and happier for us if we knew this spot was going to carry on as a deli.”

Most Jewish delicatessens that have been around a long time are family businesses passed down from generation to generation, such as Katz’s in New York, in business since 1888, or Shapiro’s in Indianapolis, since 1905.

Adelman, 54, and Levitt, 57, don’t have any children to hand the deli to, though they were married for seven years until divorcing in the mid-1990s. The Berkeley residents have been “broadcasting far and wide, looking for who would be the perfect person or people to take it over” so they can head off into retirement.

“The question is, how does a deli go from being 30 years old to getting to its 60th year, and from there on to 100?” asked Levitt, who is also the executive chef, noting that the 75-year-old Stage Deli, a New York landmark, closed in 2012. And in 2013 in San Francisco, Moishe’s Pippic owner Joe Sattler opted to shut down his Chicago-style Jewish deli in Hayes Valley after 26 years rather than try to find a buyer.

A Jewish-style restaurant has been on the Saul’s site since 1955, when a lunch counter called the Pantry Shelf opened in the same location. Not a Jewish deli, per se, although “delicatessen” in huge letters was the most prominent part of the sign above the front door, the Pantry Shelf was owned by a man known as Goldberg and served Ashkenazi Jewish favorites such as pickles and deli sandwiches along with hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes.

After a few decades, the Pantry Shelf was sold and transformed into a full-fledged Jewish deli, Rosenthal’s. That lasted seven years, until 1986, when Andra Lichtenstein took an interest and put together a limited partnership group to buy the place. “A true community effort,” Lichtenstein boasted. More than 40 Berkeley residents (many of them ex-New Yorkers) were the investors, and some of them, including her, still are.

Lichtenstein served as the first manager at Saul’s, which was named in honor of her late father, Saul Lichtenstein, a man with a passion for food and cooking who died two years before the purchase.

Adelman, meanwhile, had ditched a nascent career in the publishing business in 1989 and took what she thought was going to be a temporary job as a waitress at Saul’s. The Southern California native and U.C. Berkeley graduate had a familiarity with (and love of) Jewish deli; her parents were from New York and took the family on two vacations to the Big Apple every year.

“My Jewish education consisted of eating at different delicatessens in New York,” she said.

Levitt, who was born in Botswana and moved as a child to Johannesburg, South Africa, came to Saul’s in 1995 after cooking in the kitchens of two iconic, pioneering restaurants: Chez Panisse in Berkeley (for two years) and Oliveto in Oakland (for four). Adelman coaxed him to Saul’s with a vision of him taking over as manager.

As a youth in Africa, Levitt didn’t know from deli. “I never had deli growing up,” he said. “But I did grow up with Jewish food — rye bread and cold cuts, and we always had shmaltz right there on the table. And a Russian Jewish bakery in [Johannesburg]. But no Jewish deli.”

At Saul’s, Levitt and Adelman, who were then married, worked as co-managers while they negotiated to buy the place. Lichtenstein said she and the other owners at the time were looking for successors capable of leading the deli for another 20 or 30 years.

“We had the same considerations as Peter and Karen have now,” Lichtenstein said. “We were so lucky that they saw the potential and wanted to jump in. And not only did they maintain tradition; they made it better. They expanded it. They made it more professional. And they are committed to sustainable and local products wherever possible.”

“I have great admiration for what Peter and Karen have accomplished,” said Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.” The Berkeley resident and U.C. Berkeley professor calls himself a Saul’s regular.

“They’ve gone the extra mile to source sustainable produce, which is a particular challenge in the context of the Jewish deli, where people expect huge portions of meat — and we know sustainably and humanely produced meat is expensive,” Pollan said. “I just hope the new owners continue the many great traditions established at Saul’s.”

Levitt and Adelman decided pretty much from the get-go to switch from industrially produced, corn-fed meats to sustainable, grass-fed and humanely produced meat. At a time when emulating everything New York was a common goal at Bay Area Jewish delis — and getting items shipped in from New York City was a badge of honor — Saul’s new owners decided to move toward local and organic ingredients, and to jump off the industrial food system train as much as possible.

They took small steps, such as using better quality mayonnaise in their potato salad, and big ones, such as buying locally grown vegetables and making their own sauerkraut to include a real, living ferment.

In the mid-1990s, words like “organic” and “sustainable” and “artisanal” were not in the public mainstream, so Levitt and Adelman decided to keep the changes on the down-low. In hindsight, their commitment to such concepts actually predated the explosion of the new food movement — or at least was at the forefront of it.

“In the beginning, we kind of kept it quiet because we thought people wouldn’t really care about it, and they didn’t want to hear about it. We did it because it was very important to us,” Adelman said. “And then we had to start charging for it, and once we were charging for it, we had to tell them why. Then it was a big process of education. And then, at some point, we brought it out front and center because we were doing so much of that kind of sourcing. At first, we were definitely laughed at. Jewish diners were like, ‘Whatever … just shut up and give me my big, thick, New York deli sandwich.’”

In the last 20 years, Saul’s has been a lightning rod in the debate over what constitutes a “real” Jewish deli. Articles written about Saul’s typically talk about “the insurmountable task of trying to recreate an authentic New York Jewish deli experience in California” (San Francisco Chronicle, 2000) or use headlines like “Organic or Authentic? The Saul’s Deli Debate” (New York Times, 2010).

Levitt, who says he can bite into any pastrami or corned beef sandwich and tell you what kind of meat is being used, will be getting into some of those issues on March 15 at the JCC of the East Bay in Berkeley when he speaks on “The Evolution of Delis — Three Decades of Saul’s.”

Passover 2013 at Saul’s

One of his topics will be how to “save the deli,” the title of a 2009 book by David Sax.

Though a number of Jewish delicatessens have stood the test of time, “the more common scenario is that they have simply gone out of business,” Adelman said. “Look at the number of Jewish delis 30 or 40 years ago compared to today. They’ve radically diminished, even with the little renaissance that the Jewish deli has been experiencing in recent years.”

That’s why Adelman and Levitt are intent on finding the right person or people to take over. “The plan is to find somebody in the community who would step in and, over time, take over,” Adelman said. “We would mentor them, rather than just handing it over to a total stranger or letting someone buy it and turn it into another kind of restaurant.”

Were Saul’s to disappear from the Bay Area Jewish map, it would upset a lot of people, including political commentator and U.C. Berkeley professor Robert Reich, who served as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

Reich said he dines at Saul’s two or three times a week and usually orders “simple things.”

“I love the atmosphere, the service and much of the menu,” he said. “It’s an important anchor to the community, both the North Berkeley community and the Jewish community, a place where friends can meet without even planning to, and where one can have a long and leisurely talk or a quick meal.”

Karen Adelman’s whimsical art greets customers.

Saul’s has plenty of devotees, including the 3,000 people who show up every year on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when a huge klezmer party is held in the street out front. And traffic always increases during the week of Passover, especially for the annual second-night seder, when Saul’s is packed, with many customers conducting seders at their own tables. The restaurant provides seder plates and haggadahs for those who need them, and serves up matzah and a traditional Pesach meal.

Other traditions include Klezmer Mondays, a staple for the past three years; a “latke tent” on the front sidewalk for Hanukkah; and friends shmoozing with friends when picking up their take-out orders for the holidays.

“Saul’s is an institution for the whole of Berkeley,” said Jim Maser, who knows a thing or two about the Berkeley restaurant business. He co-owned Café Fanny with his sister-in-law Alice Waters, founder and owner of Chez Panisse; the café closed in 2012 after 28 years. Maser also has owned Picante in Berkeley for nearly 22 years.

“Sadly, over my 32-year career, many fine establishments have closed in Berkeley for lack of someone who has the passion and business sense to run them. If a person is only food-centric, they dismiss service and administration. If they are a gregarious sort and the service is good, they dismiss the food and administrative side. If they are a bean counter and just run it from the administrative side, the lifeblood gets sucked out because of the profit motive.

“It is rare to find in any one individual with top skill levels in all three. That is why there are so few good, long-lasting establishments.”

So will Levitt and Adelman be able to find that person? Someone who is young enough to run Saul’s for a generation, but who, in Levitt’s words, “doesn’t have as big an ego as some of these 20-something-year-olds who want to start a [restaurant] business”?

Have they considered Wise Sons Jewish Deli co-owners Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom? Levitt and Adelman said they have talked (“We’ve approached everybody,” Adelman said), but the two young men are super busy with their own endeavors. Plus, added Levitt, “they still have a steep learning curve.”

How about Michael Siegel of Shorty Goldstein’s Deli in San Francisco? Shorty’s, located in the Financial District, is open only during weekday business hours, which means Siegel might want a place where he can offer dinner. He’s also heavily into using artisanal and sustainable meats, local produce and other food-movement-conscientious ingredients.

“We’ve talked to Michael a number of times,” Levitt said. “He has the subset of skills required … he has 10 to 15 years in the kitchen, and he has a passion for cooking and applying it to Jewish deli. But I don’t know that he wants it.”

“It would be great to have the opportunity to take over a restaurant with the reputation of Saul’s,” Siegel said in response. “However, we really haven’t ever spoken about the possibility of me taking over. Peter has, in the past, hinted at retirement, but that’s pretty much as far as it went.

“Running a Jewish deli truly takes a passion and love of food, culture and heritage,” he said. “I’m sure that whomever Peter finds to take over at Saul’s, they will honor and respect the work that Peter and Karen have put in over the years.”

“The Evolution of Delis — Three Decades of Saul’s in Berkeley” with Peter Levitt, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 15 at JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. $36 includes dinner. Pre-registration required. www.jcceastbay.org/localfood or (510) 845-6420

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.