Katz’s deli survived the 1918 pandemic. Now, it’s navigating Covid

Katz’s Delicatessen in New York City has been around for more than a century and has grown into an iconic institution on the Lower East Side.

Owner Jake Dell told CNBC on Friday he was feeling the weight of family history as it tries to manage the uncertainty and disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is technically our second pandemic for Katz. It’s my first,” Dell said in Squawk on the Street, referring to the 1918 pandemic flu. Katz’s, originally founded in 1888, moved up a year before that health crisis began its current location on Houston Street.

For this pandemic that has devastated the restaurant industry, Dell said it uses a “make-it-up-as-you-go” approach.

“Make the best decision we can make right now without losing touch with the nostalgia and tradition that really lies at the heart of Katz,” said Dell, a fifth generation owner.

While the pandemic is not over yet, Dell said the lessons Katz has learned over the past 11 months will help the delicatessen business thrive in the decades to come, such as website development. Strategic decisions Katz made in the years leading up to the coronavirus crisis helped keep her afloat, too, he said.

Dell’s comments came when restricted indoor dining was about to resume in New York restaurants after Governor Andrew Cuomo suspended it indefinitely in mid-December. Some health experts have questioned the timing, citing new coronavirus variants believed to be more communicable. But for many in the city’s food service industry, resuming indoor dining is welcomed as a much-needed way to increase revenue in the bitter winter.

Katz’s will have about 17 or 18 tables available to meet the 25% capacity limit, Dell said. The deli will revert to the health protocols it used in the fall when the city allowed indoor eating, he said.

Dell acknowledged Katz’s lucky because the size of the dining room makes the capacity 25% more sustainable than smaller restaurants. From a business perspective, most restaurants find it difficult to get by with just a quarter of the tables available, Dell said.

Katz’s Delicatessen will remain open for takeaway during the coronavirus pandemic on May 7, 2020 in New York City.

Ben Gabbe | Getty Images

Digital presence

“One thing that we really focused on was our website and our focus on bringing the customer experience to your door, the real Katz experience. You can’t make it to the Lower East Side. How do we bring it to you ? ” said Dell, who came to the restaurant in 2009. His father Alan was involved before him.

Fortunately, Katz’s experience of shipping groceries to the United States dates back to World War II, when the slogan “Send your boy in the army a salami,” said Dell. But when the pandemic hit last spring and brought New York tourism to a standstill and indoor dining shut down, Katz’s really needed to expand its logistics operation.

That meant training some staff, like dishwashers, on how to properly package mustard, pickles and knives so that the groceries can be shipped across the country, Dell said. “And that has grown enormously and we really hope it will continue when everything is back to normal.”

According to Dell, Katz’s set up its own network a few years ago to avoid paying a “monstrous” fee to third-party providers like DoorDash and Uber Eats. “We just bit the bullet and built a giant [delivery] Factory a few years ago and it paid off, “said Dell.” We were lucky. We didn’t fire anyone during this pandemic, and I’m pretty grateful for that. “

Katz’s received a $ 1 million to $ 2 million loan under the Paycheck Protection Program. This comes from a database compiled by the non-profit journalists website ProPublica. The loan was approved on May 3rd and has helped save 143 jobs, the database shows.

When asked why Dell struggled to keep Katz open in the depths of the pandemic, he said, “Because you have to. You lower your head and move forward. You make a choice at a time.”

“When the pandemic started, we immediately started distributing soups to … low-income and senior neighborhood buildings. We have, I believe, distributed about 30,000 meals to over 30 hospitals in all five counties. Line workers,” added Dell added, saying Katz felt obliged to help as a family-run company. “The community takes care of you. You have to take care of them when they are in need.”

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