Thursday, February 26, 2015


            Ziggy Gruber, the owner of Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen in Houston, TX, is featured in Erik Anjou's documentary, Deli Man.  I talked with him by phone on February 20 to get more information about the deli business and his life.
            Ziggy sees himself as someone who is very much attuned to his family and one who does whatever he can to perpetuate culture and community as well as family.  He's very involved with his Jewish community, and while he works very hard to earn a living, he is all about making people happy.
            Leisure time is spent with family; he says that his family is around him 24-7, and that's the way it has always been in his life.  He never has had a thought not to have family around.  Even the people who work for him have become an extension of his own family.  He works a lot of hours every week, and he's still "on" even when not at work.  His phone is always on, for instance.
            Although Ziggy doesn't have any hobbies really, he does like to go out to other restaurants because "food is what I'm all about", and he enjoys tasting food at other places and observing their operations.  He patronizes restaurants with high-end cuisine, as well as all kinds of ethnic establishments.  
            For Ziggy, satisfaction in having the deli comes from making many people happy.  Kenny & Ziggy’s is family-oriented, and he and the wait staff get to know everyone, as many come with grandparents or other special people, giving the place a homey feel.  They end up going through their customers' life cycles as they cater their brisses, bar- and bat-mitzvahs, and even shivas and funerals.  He notes that nowadays we live in a very distant world that can be cold, with people on their cell phones so much of the time.  But when they come to the Deli, there's more action and a better sense of times past.  
            Since he is always “on”, and life can get hectic, I asked him how he keeps himself centered.  His response was that as the leader, the captain of the ship, he must always stay centered.  He has 75 employees, and about 1800 people a day come in the deli.  Being calm and organized comes naturally because he was born into the business and has never known anything else.  “I don’t get frazzled because this is all I know.”
            A question about the proposed Metro system along Post Oak Boulevard prompted a detailed response.  “I’m honestly not happy about it”, he says.  He feels great responsibility for his employees and their families and he remembers the “experiment” with the rail downtown.  In his view, that area has not recovered.  So he worries that for the city to do something similar on Post Oak, could hurt the thousands of people who work in the area.  He asks, “Why would any politician or anyone want to ruin the largest tax-bases in the city?”  He sees it as a handful of people who own property up and down the Boulevard standing to make a substantial amount of money.  They are not thinking about the common good.  He points out that the proposal will not reduce traffic, and that the traffic actually moves quite well on Post Oak.  Finally, he doubts whether his customers in the Galleria area are going to want to sit and wait at a bus stop in the sizzling heat.  “I’d like to see the people who are making these decisions have to wait for a bus so they can see what it’s like.”
            I had read in the newspaper about Ziggy’s intention to start up a new restaurant where Sorrel used to be on Richmond and Greenbriar.  He said he wanted to do it to create another concept as well as give him and his employees some protection should the Post Oak Metro disrupt their operation of the Deli.  The name of the new place will probably be Dubrow’s, and the concept will be where a Kenny & Ziggy’s meets a Houston’s.
            It has meant much to Ziggy to take personal responsibility in preserving the deli experience in America.  This has required diversifying both in terms of the customer base and the menu.  Even sushi is on hiw menu now.  When the Deli first opened, about 70% of their customers were Jewish.  Now, only about 20% are Jewish, and the rest are other cultural groups.  It’s not that they have lost Jewish customers; it’s that their customer base has grown so much.  And again, he says, it’s good food, and much of traditionally Jewish food has become mainstream in America.  Although the number of Jewish delis in the country is diminishing, they will still survive:  “If you run a deli properly, and you keep your costs and your labor in check, it will survive”, because people like good food.  He likens the atmosphere in his deli to a country club where employees all know their regular customers and their families, only there are no membership fees. 
            Ziggy Gruber was very good on camera, so I wondered if another film is in the works.  Not at this time, although his brother who is in film has joked about it.  That would be fine, but he says he likes what he does now, and can’t imagine doing anything else.  “This is my heart and soul; this is what I do.”  And clearly he does it very well!


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