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Issue Sneak Peek: So Long Solley’s

Editor’s Note: The following story appeared on the front page of the May 4, 2015 San Fernando Valley Business Journal. Stephen Sachs and his father, Jeffrey, sat on the patio at Solley’s Deli and Bakery noshing on eggs, brisket and fruit as they caught up on friends, family and business. It’s been a weekly tradition for the father-son duo for years – though this particular meal proved to be unsettling. Along with their breakfast, the two received bad news: their go-to hangout, a Valley institution, would soon be serving its last meal. “They’re closing?” said a shocked Stephen Sachs, 35. “We’ll have to find a new spot now. I live in Pasadena and dad lives in Beverly Hills. It’s a convenient location.” His 82-year-old father was more taken. “I’m sorry to see them go. It’s like the end of an era.” Solley’s Deli, which has been at the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard and Hortense Street in Sherman Oaks for more than 50 years, will indeed shut its doors this June. Owned by Jerry’s Famous Deli, the Studio City-based owner of a chain of delis, Solley’s has scores of loyal customers who have eaten there for years – not to mention some 65 employees, many of whom have been with the company for at least a decade. Solley’s closure has been spurred by a spat over a rent increase sought by its landlord, Festival Cos., a Los Angeles real estate developer that acquired the shopping center where the restaurant leases space last year. But the deli’s owners believe the developer doesn’t really want it there and would like to get a hipper eatery. Whatever the cause of the dispute, this much is certain: Solley’s departure is yet another example of the sharp decline of Jewish delicatessens that blossomed in New York and spread to all corners of the country along with their Jewish patrons. But now the delis, famous for their matzo ball soup and heaping piles of pastrami and corned beef on rye, are victims of changing tastes and demographics. The deli scene in New York, which numbered in the thousands during the first half of last century, has now been reduced to several dozen. And Los Angeles delis, never as numerous as on the East Coast, have been closing too. While some iconic delis remain, such as Canter’s in the Fairfax District and Langer’s near MacArthur Park, half a dozen Jerry’s Famous Delis locations have closed since the opening of its flagship store in 1978. Junior’s Deli in West Los Angeles closed in 2012, and Steve’s Deli in Pacific Palisades followed suit in 2013. Ami Saffron, executive vice president of Jerry’s Famous Deli, acknowledged that Solley’s has been “steadily declining in sales since 2009,” though he opted not to disclose the figures. “Delis aren’t what they once were. People don’t go as much as they used to,” he rued. “Right now we’re consolidating what we have.” Step backwards Founded by Solley Zide more than 50 years ago, Solley’s Deli and Bakery has been a landmark in Sherman Oaks for more than half a century, despite a change in ownership. In 1996, Zide sold his two delis in Woodland Hills and Sherman Oaks to Jerry’s Famous Deli for about $2.3 million, and settled in for an early retirement at the age of 53. Jerry’s in turn converted the Solley’s in Woodland Hills to a Jerry’s restaurant, but left the 7,300-square-foot Solley’s in Sherman Oaks with the original name. At that time Jerry’s had six locations in the Los Angeles areas, and was looking to cut costs by purchasing a commercial bakery facility to make its own bread. The company had just gone public the previous year, listed on the Nasdaq under the ticker DELI, and was in a good position to absorb the costs of the Solley’s acquisition. Now, the closure is a step backwards. “In closing the Solley’s, we will miss not being able to make bakery items in house, and will be forced to outsource once again, something we haven’t done in almost 20 years,” Saffon said. At its peak, Jerry’s Famous Deli, founded by the late Ike Starkman in 1978, had eight locations in Southern California and one in Florida. Today, the company has downsized to four restaurants in Studio City, Marina Del Rey, Encino and Woodland Hills. It closed its 14-year-old location in Miami Beach, Fla. last July. It also owns three gourmet high-end grocery stores in Florida called Epicure Markets that it purchased in 1998 for $7.1 million. Though the company is scoping property in West Hollywood to potentially re-open a deli, Saffron said the company is not anxious to open many more locations in Los Angeles. “With the minimum wage going up, it is difficult working within Los Angeles bureaucracy,” Saffron said. “We’re more open to expanding in Florida because of the business environment. Still, we’re not completely closing our eyes to Los Angeles.” The decline in Jewish delicatessens is far from new, but it can be striking for those who are infrequent patrons used to the hustle and bustle of the eateries. Breakfast and lunch traditionally draw the largest crowds, but walk into some delis in the evening, and it can feel like a ghost town. Some observers have cited the traditional high prices of delis as the culprit, but as the proprietors will tell you, butter-soft hot brisket and pastrami doesn’t come cheap. At Solley’s, the prices for sandwiches reflect this, ranging from $15.95 to $18.25, including a side soup or salad but no drink. However, there is a whole generation of millennials who are more than willing to fork out $10 or more on a prime burger that is likely less filling –not counting the sweet potato fries. Longtime L.A. food critic Merrill Shindler, editor of the Zagat Los Angeles Restaurant Survey, said the answer is simple: changing demographics and a growing awareness of the health risk of a diet high in fats have caught up with the delis. “It has always been risky in terms of health with the high fat and high calories,” Shindler said. “I’m Jewish, and growing up all my relatives in their 40s looked like old people. The food and all the fat was killing them. Today that’s a bit out of style, especially in the Valley where we eat sushi and salads.” He also said family-run delis are suffering from a generational shift, with the children of the founders often not willing to put up with the long hours to run the restaurants. He noted that corned beef and pastrami are very time-consuming and difficult to prepare. “The one reason usually given is that the next generation isn’t interested,” he said. “It’s too much work (to operate) and a lot of delis are indeed labor intensive. You have to deal with a fairly demanding clientele and a difficult product. Those traditions have faded.” But amidst the decrease of traditional kosher delicatessens, some restauranteurs are emerging with fresh concepts that incorporate old traditions, such as Wexler’s, a downtown Los Angeles deli opened in April 2014 by Micah Wexler. It was praised by the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly for its pastrami sandwiches, but it features a more contemporary approach, with all-natural ingredients and the provenance disclosed to patrons. The 350-square-foot deli counter at Grand Central market has received ample media coverage for its corned beef and smoked fish offerings, and is faring well amidst Los Angeles deli giants Canter’s and Langer’s. “The wheel turns and everything goes full circle,” said Shindler. “New wave delis are coming back and new generations are discovering the joys of making these products themselves.” Relocation assistance But that won’t help Solley’s clientele or its longtime employees. The restaurant’s lease ended last June, and the deli was operating under a one-year extension while working out new rates with Festival. But Saffron said the offer Festival made was “not acceptable.” “They said straight up that they don’t want our deli there anymore,” he maintained. “We were talking about keeping the bakery and maybe building a restaurant with a different concept but those negotiations went nowhere.” Ryan Shea, Festival’s investment director, disputed that characterization and said the closure was simply the result of the two sides being unable to reach a lease extension. “We certainly valued Solley’s as a tenant with how long they’ve been in the community,” said Shea. “There were good intentions on both sides, but we weren’t able to come to a long-term deal.” That said, Shea mentioned that the developer is planning a much-needed facelift for the 32,000-square-foot center in December or early next year. “We’re in the early stages of getting plans submitted to the city,” Shea explained. “It’s not an expansion and we’re not adding housing. It’s a renovation of the existing shopping center.” But already, he said, Festival has been approached by many restaurants seeking to fill the vacancy Solley’s will leave behind. As of now, no contracts have been signed. Solley’s is set to close June 6. Its 65 employees will have the option to apply for available positions at the four standing Jerry’s Famous Deli locations. Nancy Rodriguez, 39, who has been serving at Solley’s for 15 years, was distressed upon hearing of the closing several weeks ago. She said she will not be applying to work at a Jerry’s. “This place is like a family and many of the servers have been here for 15 to 25 years,” she said. “Customers have been surprised and sad when we tell them, and this has been a bit stressful.”

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