Zabar's: The Podcast
Willie Zabar talks to The Melt about the iconic store's new project
You know how they say everybody has a podcast these days? Well, now you can thank your lucky stars that the Upper West Side cathedral to all things appetizing (is it an oxymoron to call an appetizing place a cathedral? I should check this) has announced a podcast diving into the history and the people that make Zabar’s the kind of place that has been an important part of the New York City landscape since 1934.
Here at The Melt, I couldn’t be more excited about this news, so I reached out to the man behind the pod, Willie Zabar. Besides being the latest generation to carry on his family’s name, Willie is a comedian and also the person behind the store’s Instagram account. He was nice enough to answer a few questions about the podcast, the return of the store’s famous 91-year-old lox slicer and lessons he’s learned growing up around a Manhattan institution. The first episode of the podcast drops sometimes next week. Go here for all the info and tune in.
So, a Zabar's podcast. What was the idea behind that?
The idea had been floating around for a while. We’ve sponsored radio shows and podcasts in the past, and one day a couple years ago someone pointed out that we could make our own in-house. Before the pandemic I had been working in a theater and doing a lot of live comedy, so when those went away I suddenly had a lot of extra time on my hands and it made sense to focus on making this podcast.
I didn’t have much experience with microphones and audio editing but my good friend Henry Butler was finishing up a Master’s in music technology so I kept bugging him for advice and eventually he became our sound person. At some point I was approached by a producer named Emily Charash who I knew from the comedy world, and she was like “has Zabar’s ever thought about making a podcast?” and I said “funny you should ask, we’re making one right now!” She’d already made podcasts for other businesses and had all these great ideas so she very quickly became part of the team.
Saul going "How are you doing, people of the internet" in the preview made my day. Is he a podcast fan?
I had to explain to Saul what a podcast was, so no. But I showed him what we had put together and he loved it, which was huge because as co-owner he holds a lot of sway.
You're a comedian. Does your family business ever make it into your jokes?
Absolutely, although I found out the hard way that not everybody knows what Zabar’s is. When the room is mostly people from outside of NY I usually stick to other topics. I have a lot of material about the store but usually I save it for times when I have the home-field advantage.
You're a 4th generation deli guy. How much time have you spent behind the counter and what's the best lesson you've learned working there?
I’ve worked in the Deli Department on and off since I was 16. I’ve pretty much made the switch to the media side of things, but I still find myself behind the counter to take photos and make myself sandwiches.
In terms of the best lesson I learned, one time I was helping package latkes for the Hanukkah rush. This great guy named Caesar from the kitchen was explaining the importance of food presentation. He said, “people don’t eat with their mouths, they eat with their eyes.” I still think about that all the time, especially in my current role. I can’t tell you the number of shots I’ve thrown away because a piece of salmon didn’t look just right.
You're in charge of the store's great Instagram account and now you're doing the podcast. I like that you're doing it, because I feel like another store would be like "Let's hire somebody, but Zabar's is keeping it in the family. Am I right in guessing they listen to, for lack of a better word, the kids and their ideas?
It’s kind of complicated. The store’s doctrine is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That approach makes a lot of sense for some things because the customer expects a certain amount of consistency when they visit Zabar’s. I think if we stopped having people take a number at the Fish Counter and instead made them scan a QR code with their phone, there would be a riot.
The way I see it, the key to introducing new ideas is to find something that brings value to the company without messing with the day-to-day operations. Then you have to implement it on a small scale as a proof of concept. If it goes well, then management is like “congratulations, this is part of your job now.” So that’s what I’m aiming for with his 3-episode mini-season.
The story of Len getting back behind the counter recently went viral. Did he realize he has so many fans?
He was definitely surprised. I mean this is someone whose job for 26 years has been helping exactly one customer at a time, and suddenly he’s getting kudos from thousands of people all at once. Just the other day, the Manhattan Borough President and the Lieutenant Governor stopped by to formally recognize his years of service and celebrate his return.
So Zabar's is this storied New York City institution that people that love food never get tired of and writers will always find a reason to write about it, but is there like one weird fact about Zabar's that never gets talked about? Like did Nora Ephron once leave her credit card there and forget to pick it up and it's still sitting in a desk drawer or like was the logo originally supposed to be green but somebody intervened and said "I think orange looks better"? Give me the good gossip!
Apparently we were one of the first businesses to make a branded T-shirt! We were mentioned as an example in this 1973 newspaper article about the rise of the graphic T. I’ve actually compiled a bunch of weird little historical tidbits from newspaper archives and old recordings, but if you want to hear them you’ll have to listen to the podcast!
That’s the stuff! Now, I'm going to put you on the spot, but what's the first item you think of eating when you walk into Zabar's?
The strudel. I only let myself buy it on New Year’s, otherwise I’d never eat anything else.