The customers arrived in waves on Main Street. Jewish families and northeastern transplants pressed their faces against the newly cleaned storefront glass window, admiring the fresh food, like kids peering into a candy store.
Solomon Shenker was inside, slicing fresh rounds of pastrami and other deli meat, preparing for the opening of his new restaurant, Sol Meyer NY Delicatessen. Unfortunately, for the growing crowd outside, they’ll have to wait a few more days.
“We don’t open until Friday,” he said, reluctantly turning them away — but not without a consolatory knish.
He understands their eagerness. He, too, has been waiting a long time for a Jewish deli to open in Sarasota. After 15 years, the Long Island, N.Y., native decided to open his own. And when he opens the doors, he wants it to be perfect.
Located in the heart of downtown Sarasota’s restaurant row, at 1473 Main St., Sol Meyer NY Delicatessen will serve Jewish deli cuisine, inspired by Shenker’s family kitchen and the Manhattan delis he loved as a child. In October, he and his business partner and brother-in-law, Meyer Sabotin, rented the space, which was formerly occupied by the Englewood-based pizzeria, Flatbreads.
In a month’s time, Shenker, 51, has accomplished a lot: acquiring permits from the city, redecorating the cozy 35-seat space, handpicking his 13-member staff and acquiring and prepping deli staples such as corned beef, brisket, pickles, matzo balls and knishes.
To please the discerning Jewish community, he knew just serving the essentials wouldn’t be enough. Most importantly, he knew his ingredients would all need to come from New York City (he buys all his meat from the Bronx). He also knew that he and his kitchen staff would need to hand-make every item. But Shenker says the hard work is a small price to pay to have his own deli, which opened Friday, Nov. 27, just in time for Hanukkah.
“I’ve been up at 5 a.m. every day and have gotten to the deli at 6 a.m.” he says. “And I’m here until 10 p.m. or later every night. It’s the craziest business in the world, and I wouldn’t trade it in for anything.”
Shenker isn’t only satisfying his own dreams. He’s satisfying the appetites of Sarasota’s approximately 25,000 Jewish residents and countless northeastern seasonal residents and retirees used to having a deli just up the block. Sol Meyer NY Delicatessen will feed a demand that, besides a few corporate regional chains, has remained untapped since Shenker moved to Sarasota in 2000.
And for most, there’s a deeper connection to deli food. It’s more than just a familiar taste and smell. For those who grew up on this Jewish soul food, each bite is like a step into a time machine. Sarasota’s demand was so great that after just two days, Shenker and his staff ran out of food and had to work all Sunday to prepare and restock the kitchen.
“For us, it’s a bite of the old country,” says Shenker. “It brings us back. No matter where you are, if you’re eating pastrami, corned beef, knishes, the big deli sandwiches, you’re taking a bite out of New York and your family roots. Every time you eat deli, it’s like going on a vacation to Manhattan.”
Since he moved to Sarasota, Shenker has worked as a chef at the Longboat Key Club, Hotel Indigo and the Starlite Room. On the side, he also ran a kosher catering business. Now fans who have tracked the deli’s progress online show up just to watch Shenker and his team prepare their favorite foods.
The biggest test: living up to their impossibly high standards. After a sneak peek of Shenker’s food, leadership staff from the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee gave their approval.
“I’ve been waiting 15 years for a real New York deli, and now it’s finally here,” says Howard Tevlowitz, executive director of The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee. “There is a God.”
Tevlowitz’s colleagues agreed. “I ate the whole thing,” says Jeremy Lisitza, director of community engagement and administration of the Jewish Federation, after noshing on an oversized plate of handmade chopped liver. “I’m not saying it’s better than my mother’s chopped liver. She’s still alive.”
Florida native or Northeast transplant, Jewish or Gentile, Shenker’s goal is to make his restaurant customers’ home away from home. And with its recently hired staff already interacting like family and a communal seating policy that encourages eating next to strangers, Shenker is confident his deli is more than just a place to grab a good meal.
“When you walk in here, I want everyone to know each other,” he says. “It’s going to be like a Jewish ‘Cheers.’”