On the Frontlines of the Gourmet Revolution

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An iconic family business built on dedication and discriminating palates

By Christopher Moore

Saul Zabar stood at a Lazy Susan laden with cups, spitting out coffee after tasting it. He actually swallowed some of the particularly good stuff. Mostly, though, he kept tasting and spitting, tasting and spitting, making his way through the samples with considerable speed.

“This one I rejected,” he said, looking down at a specimen that did not make the cut. “I rejected this one. We didn’t care for it.”

Moving along, he gets to a Kenyan brand. “The Kenyans used to have the best coffee and they screwed it up,” he said, using a stronger word.

Saul Zabar should know. As co-owner of Zabar’s, he’s a key part of this city’s foodie firmament.

“I’m here 60 years,” he said.

Stanley and Saul Zabar, co-owners of the specialty food store and sons of founder Louis Zabar. Photo by Daniel S. Burnstein

He remains very much a part of the scene at the store on Broadway at West 80th Street, where five formerly separate storefronts come together to create an iconic Upper West Side space. Movies like You’ve Got Mail and TV shows like Sex and the City and Will & Grace use references to Zabar’s to evoke a whole sophisticated lifestyle.

For Saul Zabar, it’s a way of life. He was first spotted this spring day tasting lunchmeat on the first floor. At 82, he remains a vital presence at Zabar’s, where he weighs in on what’s being offered with a constantly streaming series of assessments. He’s a co-owner and president, but he seemed most proud when speaking about his role as the principal buyer for fish and coffee. Especially coffee. Saul Zabar cared about coffee long before his fellow West Siders made their way to Europe and discovered espresso, decades before Starbucks came to town, or other competitors began to pay attention.

“We were in the vanguard of the gourmet revolution,” Zabar said simply.

That history-making endeavor played out as family history. As a son of Louis Zabar, the founder of the Upper West Side specialty food store, Saul Zabar is joined in the family business by brother Stanley, an attorney, who is the vice-president. Their brother Eli has markets and restaurants, including the much-heralded Eli’s and E.A.T. Café, over on the Upper East Side. Over the years, there have been stories of squabbling among the brothers, but Saul Zabar said in this interview that Eli is “the genius of the Zabar family.” Indeed, some of Eli’s cookies are sold among the desserts at Zabar’s.

“We’re not connected financially, but we do a lot of business together,” Saul Zabar said.

And it’s not just about the brothers. Saul Zabar’s son, Aaron, also works at the store, as have cousins and the occasional in-law as well.

There is still plenty of business for them all to do. Saul Zabar estimated that the store draws about 35,000 customers a week, generating around $50 million a year. There’s been a recession-related drop of about 3 or 4 percent. Or as Zabar put it: “We’re not complaining, but we’re not immune.”

Although still drawing four or five tour buses a week, Zabar said he assumes that the majority of his business remains local.

“I always considered this store as a very special part of the West Side,” he said. Then he admitted, almost shyly: “That was my personal view.”

The connection to the neighborhood is underscored by Zabar’s contributions to Symphony Space, the JCC and a series of outdoor programs this summer at Lincoln Center.

“We try to be active within the community if we can,” he said.

Zabar’s roots here are deep. He mixed nostalgia and humor when talking about the Upper West Side, where he spent a portion of his childhood at long-gone movie theaters up and down Broadway. He lives at West 90th Street and West End Avenue today, but he grew up in a building across the street from Zabar’s. He talked about how the great bulk of the apartment houses were built in the same era, especially those from West 72nd to 110th streets. He thought back not just to the skyline, but to the skirmishes he experienced as a kid.

“The Jewish boys were always fighting with the Irish-Catholic kids,” he said. “It wasn’t terrible. Nobody ever got hurt.”

Years later, he was in college at the University of Kansas when his father died.

“I was not doing too well, probably drinking too much. I was becoming a bum, so when he died it was a good excuse to come back to the family business,” Zabar said.

His father left behind several businesses, but this singular food store emerged as the place that really lasted.

One key figure from outside the family who was instrumental in the ongoing success: Murray Klein, who joined the store in 1953, staying until 1994.

“He was good at managing the personnel,” Zabar said of his partner, who died in 2007.

Klein had a passion for housewares, which are now sold on the second floor. He was also key to combining the structures that became the modern-day Zabar’s.

Today, all those years after his father established a culinary beachhead, Saul Zabar can walk among the crowd. Like any visitor to Zabar’s, he will hear many languages spoken and watch so many customers filling their baskets, often bumping into one another. He keeps checking to make sure the coffee is premium and the fish is fresh. An icon, after all, requires upkeep.

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