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Transition at Longtime Deli Was Family Effort

Don’t tell Harold Ginsburg and Roberta Mitteldorf that kosher-style delis are a dying breed. The second generation owners of Art’s Delicatessen and Restaurant in Studio City have taken Art’s from its roots in a bygone era to a family restaurant that can compete with the chains that dominate the category. They’ve done it by keeping all of the things that made Art’s popular from family owners who kibitz with customers on the restaurant floor to the traditional kosher dishes that the deli is known for while adding new items more suited to contemporary tastes and trends and implementing professional management that helps conserve costs and improve profits. But all of the family members who run Art’s will tell you the transition wasn’t easy. “That’s why I’m in therapy,” says Art Ginsburg, who founded the restaurant in 1957 with his wife, Sandy. “Giving up the power, the control, is very difficult, and at some point you have to step back if you want (your children) to be involved in the business.” Art’s eldest, Harold, was the first to enter the business full time after graduating from Cal State University Northridge with a degree in business in 1984. “I started working and never stopped,” he said. “I was taking on more and more responsibility and it just evolved.” Mitteldorf followed several years later, but both say they gradually shaped their respective roles Harold handles the back end and his sister handles the menu and hostesses based on their skills and interests. There was no master plan. “I started out baking our own line of cookies,” said Mitteldorf. “That developed into me spending more time and going into management.” The children, including a third, Beverly Goldin who is a teacher, now have ownership control of the business. But Art and Sandy Ginsburg still participate in day to day operations and decisions. “When we work on the menu, it’s still a four-person project,” Mitteldorf said. Under Mitteldorf’s stewardship, the menu has broadened to include such items as California-style salads, and some recipes have been overhauled. The chicken soup, for instance, is now made from the whole chicken, instead of the backs and necks that were traditionally used; and beef bones have been eliminated from other soups to make them suited to vegetarian tastes. The restaurant has also expanded the menu to include new dishes, such as grilled salmon and beef stew that were not a customary part of traditional deli offerings. “Some of the things we’ve gone to are more comfort foods,” said Mitteldorf by way of explaining how the restaurant’s owners go about expanding the menu without losing the old-school feel of the deli. “Beef stew is not a deli item, but it’s a comfort item and it’s one of our best sellers.” Back-office changes The back office operation too has changed considerably, transitioning from a mom-and-pop store to professional management that keeps up to date on the variety of compliance issues that are now part of running any business. “Traditionally, the owners were in the front running the business by the seat of their pants,” said Harold Ginsburg. “As business grew and government requirements changed health department permits, wage and hour laws the nature of maintaining the operation and putting the key in the door changed.” Like his sister, Harold Ginsburg believes that the changes they have made in the operation were required by the changing times, not simply a reflection of a new generation taking the reins at the restaurant. “In order to stay competitive, you have to evaluate every single item,” said Harold Ginsburg. “It’s what are we spending? Who are we paying it to? And are they doing the job for us? So we did that with all our suppliers.” Their dad has a different take on it. “What you find is the different salesmen or companies you’re dealing with are your peers, not the children’s peers,” said Art Ginsburg. “So they look for younger salesmen that they can relate to. That goes for attorneys, accountants, salesmen, because they’re running the business, not you, so they have to be comfortable and they have to be able to deal with people who understand their generation.” Seeing growth Early on, the generation gap was more apparent to those who work at Art’s, like Caryle Bryan, a hostess who also manages the catering and has been at the restaurant since 1979. “There were certain things they wanted to do and they would get frustrated if Art gave his input,” Bryan said. “Art had a tough time with it. But they’re doing a good job and they’re growing into their positions, and I’ve seen the growth and it’s been good.” If the second generation has brought many changes, it has also kept some traditions very much like they were in 1957 when Art’s Deli was one quarter of its current size. Art Ginsburg’s mantra of quality first is still echoed by the children. And just as it’s been for nearly a half century, the new proprietors of Art’s still mingle with their customers on the restaurant floor. These days though, some customers ask for Art, some ask for Sandy, some for Roberta and still others for Harold. Then too, the customers have changed some. “Excuse me just a minute,” Roberta Mitteldorf told a visitor recently. “I have to say hello to (film actor) Mr. T. He always asks for me when he comes in.”

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