New owner’s work ethic, energy bode well for Creve Coeur deli

Harlan Levin, the new owner of Pumpernickel’s Delicatessen in Creve Coeur, takes an order from a customer on Monday.

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

The Jewish delicatessen business may burn out dedicated managers, but the new owner of Pumpernickle’s Delicatessen asserts he will not be bowed by demanding patrons, a tough economy and employee problems.

“People tell me, ‘You’re going to have all those Jewish customers who are never satisfied and complain a lot,’” said Harlan Levin, the new owner of the deli at 11036 Olive Boulevard in Creve Coeur. Levin, who worked for Brown Shoe Co. for 20 years, handling the Wal-Mart account for children’s shoes, has a quick response: “I tell them, ‘It’s nothing like working for Wal-Mart.’”

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Levin, 56, took ownership of the 100-seat deli and catering hangout in Creve Coeur in mid-April. Neither he nor Jay Silverman, who bought Pumpernickle’s more than four years ago and sold it to Levin, would disclose the terms.

Levin believes his experience of holding down costs and satisfying the Bentonville, Ark., merchandizing giant has prepared him to appease customers seven days a week with longer hours, deliveries up and down Olive and at shivas, bar and bat mitzvahs and occasions of all kinds.

That kind of personal service and attention to detail has promise. Jessica Brown, who lost both of her parents within a few weeks, remembers how Silverman himself delivered shiva trays to her house just weeks apart.

“He was so kind when he did that,” Brown said.

Since he took over at Pumpernickle’s, Levin said he has spent $45,000 to redo the restrooms, buy new furniture and generally spiff up the place. 

“I looked at it and thought: This place is missing warmth,” Levin said.

So he’s making improvements.

“I don’t like old,” he said. “I like new.”

He sees owning the deli, which would be a completely new experience—except for his teenage years working in one—as a family affair.

He’s counting on the expertise, energy and enthusiasm of his two sons to make Pumpernickle’s a go. Bryan is earning a business degree at the University of Missouri- St. Louis, and Richard will receive a similar degree this spring from the University of Missouri at Columbia.

When he was scouting out Pumpernickle’s, Levin asked his wife to look over the menu, which has such delights as a tongue sandwich on rye with a pickle wedge; the Smoky Louie with Nova lox, smoked salmon, whitefish salad and chive cheese on rye; kosher corned beef and kosher salami sandwiches, but also ham and smoked beef bacon sandwiches.  A favorite of many is the Mish Mosh soup.

“I watched my wife look at the menu,” Levin said. “It took her too long.”

So he’s simplifying it.

Levin says he aware of the Herculean amount of work ahead to make Pumpernickle’s into the kind of deli that will pull in Jewish and non-Jewish customers alike. 

He says he’s increasing the serving portions on sandwiches to one third of a pound of meat. Asked if the prices would change too, he replied: “I knew a guy in the restaurant business who told me, ‘If you sell enough sandwiches, the money will take care of itself.’” 

To that end, Levin says he plans to start taking orders and making deliveries. To the east is the Monsanto campus with hundreds of potentially hungry employees; to the west lie several office parks and professional office buildings, all rather full of possible customers.

And he’s setting the hours so the deli opens each morning at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 6:30 p.m. weekdays  to catch the home-bound commuter. Saturdays and Sundays, Pumpernickle’s will close at 3 p.m.

Levin plans to keep long hours: in at 6:30 a.m. and out 11-and-a-half hours later at 6 p.m.

But Silverman, the man who sold the deli to Levin, found the long hours and constant pressure a sure prescription for burning out. And therein may lie a warning for Levin and anyone else who goes into the food and food service business: It’s very hard, grinding work.

“I had never been in that business before,” said Silverman, who has returned to being a wholesale auto dealer, as he was before he bought Pumpernickle’s in January 2008.  “It’s very difficult. It’s seven days a week, with no vacation.”

He’s 59, just three years older than Levin, but Silverman said the constant workload was hard to handle at his age.

Still, somehow, the food business apparently has got into Silverman’s blood. Now he wants to own and run a food truck that would sell breakfasts around some of the office parks and business centers, as well as offering deli-style sandwiches, cold cuts and salads for the noon meal.

But he doesn’t plan to overlap his route with the area along Olive that Levin is eyeing for his take-out business. 

“I’m thinking more along the lines of in-and-out quickly, in smaller places,” Silverman said. 

If all works by the plans of Levin and Silverman, the deli-lunching public in West County, and maybe elsewhere, could benefit delightfully. Silverman noted when discussing prices that he found himself competing with specialty grocery stores and supermarket chains that now may stock a wide selection of kosher cold cuts.

“People say there are 60,000 Jews in St. Louis,” he said. “I think it’s half of that.”

He believes a lot of Jewish customers now gravitate toward the main-line supermarkets for their deli food, which has contributed to the decline in traditional delis in St. Louis as well as other cities. 

“They sell kosher-style corned beef, but it’s a packaged product that’s not that good,” Silverman said. “I bought my corned beef from Sy Ginsberg,” which is made by United Meat & Deli in Detroit.

Levin says he plans to keep the same meat suppliers that Silverman used.