When Mormons open Jewish delis

salt lake city  |  Going back to his very first bite of a Reuben sandwich more than 50 years ago, Randy Harmsen has always loved deli food. So when he decided to open his own restaurant, the Salt Lake City native followed in the footsteps of his heroes who founded establishments such as Katz’s in New York, Langer’s in Los Angeles and Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Mich.

But while Harmsen’s 9th South Delicatessen is stocked with pastrami, matzah ball soup, latkes and other Jewish favorites, it differs from the predecessors who inspired it in one key regard: Harmsen isn’t Jewish. He’s Mormon and a former bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Randy Harmsen photo/jta-erik pettee

Harmsen first sampled deli food as a teenager in 1963 at the Salt Lake City delicatessen of Lu Dornbush, a Dutch-born Holocaust survivor. Immediately, he was taken with the cuisine. As he subsequently traveled to different cities for work — he ran an engineering firm — Harmsen always made a point to seek out Jewish delis.

And as Harmsen learned more about the history of Jewish immigrants and their foods, he came to see a parallel between deli food and the fare of the early Mormon pioneers.

“It was a low-priced soul food for the  Jewish population,” Harmsen said. “When [Jews] first came they were quite a poor

population, so they learned to make delicious food out of very simple things. We did the same thing with very basic foods and try to make them savory by using some spices.”

However, Harmsen says, Mormon food — famously heavy on casseroles and Jell-O molds, along with starches and boiled meats — wasn’t always as much to his liking.

Like many Mormons, Harmsen also sees deeper connections between the Mormon experience and that of the Jews. Harmsen’s great-great-grandfather, William Clayton, was part of the original Mormon settlement of Navuoo, Ill. Clayton accompanied Brigham Young in the wagon train of Mormon pioneers who fled persecution and ultimately founded Salt Lake City. (“If I were in Israel, I’d be a sabra,” Harmsen quipped.) That migration is known as the Mormon Exodus.

Harmsen and his wife are deeply involved in the Mormon church. He has twice served as a bishop, a volunteer position overseeing approximately 500 people, and nowadays they lead the music program for a Mormon children’s group.

Pastrami sandwich at 9th South Deli in Salt Lake City photo/jta-anthony weiss

Harmsen has eaten his way through delis across the country, and he rates the original 2nd Avenue Deli, then in Manhattan’s East Village, as the best. But the most important deli he visited on his journey to restau-rateur was Zingerman’s, where Harmsen tried the Reuben and was floored. He became a devotee, and when he decided to sell his engineering business a few years later and thought about opening his own Jewish-inspired deli, he returned to Zingerman’s for advice.

“They said, ‘You want to make a million dollars in a delicatessen?’ and I said, ‘Well, that would be nice.’ They said, ‘Start with 2 million,’ ” Harmsen recalled. He studied Zingerman’s operation for about 30 days over the course of a year, then hired a general manager and sent her to train there for two weeks.

Harmsen also took research trips to New York and Los Angeles to find the best source of pastrami, and ultimately found his favorite at Langer’s Deli. He then leased a space in a renovated Victorian in the eclectic shopping district of Salt Lake City’s hip 9th and 9th neighborhood.

The 9th South Deli opened in 2011 and promptly earned positive local reviews (albeit with complaints about “New York prices.”)

Sustaining a deli in Salt Lake City is no simple task, especially since the Jewish population in all of Utah is less than 6,000. Dornbush retired in 1978, shutting down his place. The city had trouble maintaining a Jewish-style deli afterward. The Chicago Deli, which opened in 1994, lasted only a few years before closing.