Neither rain, nor sleet, nor wind, nor, apparently, a pandemic, can keep Jews from their deli. They come in single file, sporting a hunger for the comfort food of their childhood, and wearing masks that in another time would have gotten them tossed out on all fours on suspicion of robbery.
But today, Jews still must have their corned beef, their pastrami, their white fish, kugel, brisket, tongue, and a nice bagel with salmon spread. Every day is like a bar mitzvah at Larry Levine’s Kosher Meats & Deli in Peabody and Evan’s New York Style Deli in Marblehead, only there are no bar mitzvahs on the horizon.
Both deli owners, Todd Levine and Evan Madoff, exude pride for their profession and for keeping the traditional Jewish cuisine alive and mouth-watering for patrons from the North Shore and beyond.
These are strange times, but both businesses are rolling with the punches, keeping their eye on constant sanitation, using protective gear for all staff and assuring that customers follow rules for masks and safe distancing.
Neither business has been significantly affected by the disruption in the supply chain of food yet, but both know it’s coming. Empire Kosher closed its Pennsylvania processing plant for two weeks in April when two workers tested positive for the virus.
Evan Madoff, who opened Evan’s on Smith Street in Marblehead 14 years ago and then moved it to Humphrey Street in Swampscott, worries about supplies from Hebrew National, and other vendors. Pickles haven’t been available for four weeks because “workers in the factory have the virus,” said Madoff.
He’s anticipating being short on chopped liver because the chicken livers aren’t being processed.
Madoff talks about prices “skyrocketing.” Raw roast beef “technically, retail should be over $25 a pound,” which Madoff believes will occur in the coming week. “We have held the price at $10.50. I’ll try to hold my price steady as long as I can until I can’t anymore.”
Todd Levine who works from his West Peabody shop in the Lowe Mart Shopping Center agrees. “If a company had 100 items on their product list, now they are only making 50,” he said. “Companies, in general, aren’t making all their products, just the top sellers. There’s no one to buy the other products. Restaurants are closed; the demand changes. Companies are only making products that are guaranteed sellers.
“People are over-buying and creating shortages. There’s plenty of meat, but there’s no one to process it,” said Levine, who took over the business from his late father, Larry, 25 years ago when the founder retired.
For Levine, dashing outside to deliver meals curbside to customers idling in their cars and being unable to nosh while working because of the mask, is healthier than taking a Zumba class, not that any are open.
“I’m getting the most exercise I’ve ever gotten,” Levine said. He’s also delivering to the elderly and people who can’t get out of their homes. “We are quite busy.”
On the down side, other business has picked up.
“I do a lot of shivas,” he said. “I think there are more and it’s most definitely because of the virus. I get calls from people out of state who want to send a meal to an aunt, an uncle, a friend’s friend, or a Shabbat dinner.”
His staff of four is working hard to keep up with the demand for cooked food because “people aren’t going out to eat, but they’re buying cooked food.”
Sales are stable even while his eight counter stools stand empty.
Begun in Chelsea in 1976, Levine’s moved to Peabody in 1990, totaling 44 years in the business. Best know for their quality knishes, Levine said he always has trouble keeping up with the demand.
“It’s like a puzzle. We used to have a normal routine, now it’s day by day. I never know until the truck pulls up what merchandise is coming,” said Levine.
Evan Madoff has also changed the way he does business. Curbside delivery takes more time and can be frustrating, but he’s happy to be open. Evan’s is known for the corned beef Reuben (sauerkraut) or Rachel (coleslaw) with Swiss, Russian dressing on toasted pumpernickel. The homemade pastrami knish continues to be a top seller.
“Many businesses can’t open; people can’t go to work. They’re hemorrhaging money,” said Madoff.
“The community continues to support us, so I’m grateful. We’re selling bulk items to people cooking at home, which has saved us. Biggest sellers are chicken salad, roast beef and corned beef by the pound, turkey breast, cole slaw and potato salad. Kids are home from school. It’s cheaper for families to buy in bulk.”