Surviving the Economy, One Sandwich At A Time



In hard times, people like their sandwiches. And their burgers, fries and cheesecake.

At least that’s what some of New York’s famous delis have been banking on in the current economy. Lucky for them, tight budgets and conservative spending had little impact on profits this year. Some owners say people might even be more likely to come in for a little bit of comfort, at least on their plates.

While U.S. travel and tourism was up 2.6 percent in the second quarter of 2011, the industry has dropped by more than $60 billion in the past five years, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

New York City, on the other hand, is prospering– with a record setting number of  48.8 million visitors flooding the city last year, and a continuing upward trend. And though tourism hasn’t saved all the emptying storefronts around the city, the famed corner delis that often make cameos in sitcoms, movies and photo albums are going strong.

“We’re holding our own – doing the extra things needed to keep up with the economy,” said Sandy Levine, owner of Carnegie Deli, New York institution that opened in 1937.

The deli, named for its Midtown location across the street from Carnegie Hall, is home to sandwiches stacked with enough meat to please even the choosiest of carnivores. Levine estimates that about 85 percent of his customers are tourists.

In 2005, the deli added a location in Las Vegas’s Mirage Hotel, and one at Pennsylvania’s Sands Casino Resort in 2009. It has also become increasingly dependent on online orders through its website and Seamless, a virtual delivery service.

Foot-tall sandwiches and more than 70 years of service aren’t the only things keeping the tables busy. Levine and his wife have their own reality TV show, “Family Pickle”, on Retirement Living TV.

“You’ve gotta keep up,” Levine said.

Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side was made famous with the 1989 movie “When Harry Met Sally”. Owner Alan Dell said TV has also played a large role in keeping a line of customers waiting at the door. He said many famous chefs  feature Katz’s pastrami and corned beef on their show.

Dell said his son, Jake, has been instrumental in keeping the restaurant full with online outreach, staff organization and other internal changes. And it’s not just tourists who are coming by – he estimated that 70 percent of his customers were locals.

“This time business went up after the economy started slowing,” he said.

Despite his own success, Dell said restaurants and stores in the neighborhood have been increasingly empty – a change that he blames on a combination of inspections and fine policies started under the Bloomberg administration, and the overall economic conditions.

Jacob Dominguez, a manager at Junior’s, a 60-year-old cheesecake joint with locations in Brooklyn and Midtown, agrees that surrounding restaurants without big names haven’t fared as well this year. Junior’s was slightly affected by the decline in economy, but not enough to change its numbers or business strategy, he said. It has incorporated online orders for a few years, and relies on the Times Square traffic.

“I hold us apart from other restaurants,” Dominguez said. “We’re not a chain, we’re more of a mom and pop restaurant.”

While the family-dining style delis have held their place on “Best of” lists for many years, Levine said Carnegie Deli changes its menu to reflect what the customers want. This year it added “The Melo,” a colossal stack of pastrami, bacon and salami, named for Knicks player Carmelo Anthony, a crowd favorite. Levine also said the menu had more comfort foods like macaroni-and cheese, chicken tenders and burgers that have been in demand recently.

Katz believes in the opposite approach – it hasn’t changed the menu since opening 123 years ago. The kosher-style sandwiches and desserts are still made by hand, and Dell said that there are no plans to change the food.

While New York eateries continue to be threatened by rising overhead costs and a decline in spending, it looks like these delis aren’t going anywhere.

“The holiday season is off to a good start,” Levine said, predicting a busy month for Carnegie deli.

At Junior’s, Dominguez foresees even busier days ahead: “We haven’t been affected, we’ve only been getting stronger.”

And at Katz’s Delicatessen, where staff directs the traffic of weekend lines wrapping outside the building, Dell sees a profitable future in the hands on his son.

“He’s motivated. He’s got the same thing that my father had, that I had. I see us expanding and doing even better.”