Saul's Deli has operated in Berkeley for 30 years — now its owners want to hand over the reins, but they'll wait for the right buyer.
Saul’s Deli has operated in Berkeley for 30 years — now its owners want to hand over the reins, but they’ll wait for the right buyer. Photo: Sierra Delgado
Saul’s Deli has operated in Berkeley for 30 years — now its owners want to hand over the reins, but they’ll wait for the right buyer. Photo: Sierra Delgado

When news broke on Thursday that the owners of Saul’s Deli were hoping to find a buyer for the 30-year-old North Berkeley restaurant, disappointment and shock hit social media channels in equal measure.

“Nooooooooooo,” exclaimed Jayson Elliott on Berkeleyside’s Facebook post about the news, which has reached over 42,000 people.

“Ahhhh,” wrote Pam Herman Bush simply.

“Can I make an offer for just The Pastrami?” joked David Handler.

And Anne-Marie Dumaresq admitted to a significant transgression: “My husband and I have avoided going because I’m a vegetarian, but lately, I’ve sinned a little bit here and there. I keep having this craving for a pastrami on rye (I’m licking my lips while I type) with mustard and a big pickle and I’ve always said, ‘If I’m gonna have it, we have to go to Saul’s!’ How long have we got??”

But Peter Levitt, who has co-owned the deli at 1475 Shattuck Ave. with Karen Adelman since 1995, urged the Berkeley populace not to panic. While the pair are looking for someone to take over the business eventually, they are not in a rush to sell, and they are not going anywhere, he told Berkeleyside.

Or put another way: “Perk up! Like barnacles it’s hard to pry us away,” he wrote on the Berkeleyside Facebook post about the hunt for a new owner, first reported by J-Weekly.

Saul’s, whose owners are looking for a buyer, has a recently completed parklet out front. Photo: Colleen Neff 
. Photo: Colleen Neff 

Levitt said he thought J-Weekly would focus on the fact Saul’s is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, but instead, he said, the story “morphed into a ‘help wanted’ ad.”

In fact, Levitt, 57, and Adelman, 54, who began working at the deli as a line cook and waitress respectively, have been thinking about a succession plan for several years and have put out feelers to potential buyers.

“I have often asked people if they want to buy the deli,” Levitt said Friday.

The J-Weekly article has caused such a splash that new candidates may come out of the woodwork. Many suggestions for buyers were made by Facebook posters eager to ensure the future of their chopped liver or matzo ball soup fixes was safe.

Levitt and Adelman are committed to finding the right buyer for the deli, one who probably has youth on his or her side and who wants to continue running the restaurant pretty much as is, serving a full deli menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner to a loyal customer base that includes local luminaries such as Michael Pollan and Robert Reich. Saul’s is something of an institution.

“We are looking for someone who falls in love with what they see when they walk into the restaurant. Not someone who immediately thinks about what they would do with it,” said Levitt. “We are not interested in a quick sale to someone with a big ego who wants to ‘fix it’.”

He added that someone who is looking principally for a good investment is not likely to be the right fit. He explained that he could cut $100,000 from his annual budget if he bought lower quality meat, but that such a move would not tally with his mission to provide sustainably raised meat.

Levitt understands that a new owner might want to put “fresh energy” into the restaurant and its menu, however. He points to the venerable New York spots Katz’s (established 1888) and Russ & Daughters (1914): “They once had a 30th anniversary. We are just thinking about who is going to take Saul’s to its 60th year.”

Levitt and Adelman, who were previously married, have no children so passing the restaurant down the family line is not on the cards. But, Levitt said, the business is doing well. He also cited his “amazing team,” and said, “I’m having more fun now than I’ve had in years.”

Even when they do find the right buyer, Levitt foresees working alongside him or her for a couple of years at least. The sale alone could be a year-long process, with investors involved, and the “emotional” task of agreeing a sales price, he said. But he’s also keen to ensure a new owner carries on Saul’s traditions.

“I hope they will stand on our shoulders rather than want to operate on their own,” he said. “It would be easy for them to make the same mistakes we made.”

A Reuben sandwich at Saul's. Photo: Saul's
Saul’s Reuben sandwich with Swiss, sauerkraut and Russian on grilled Acme rye. Photo: Saul’s Delicatessen
Saul’s Reuben sandwich with Swiss, sauerkraut and Russian on grilled Acme rye. Photo: Saul’s Delicatessen

The new owner will inherit an opinionated clientèle as part of the package. Levitt and Adelman have faced pushback as they have strived to marry traditional Jewish deli fare with a food practice grounded in local sourcing, homemade and seasonality. Making pastrami in a sustainable way does not produce the typical New York style sandwich bulging with fatty meat — or, at least, if that quantity of Saul’s pastrami were used, the cost would be exorbitant.

As Levitt responded to Handler, the one who expressed an interest in buying “just The Pastrami”: “Finding the right cuts of clean meat, 10 days of brining, all night smoking, and still the kvetching. Are you ready for all that?”

A vocal minority of disgruntled customers have voiced their concerns for years. Complaints were heard when Levitt and Adelman replaced the corn-syrup-heavy Dr. Brown’s sodas on the menu with their own house-made celery, cream and black cherry artisanal versions. Certain customers didn’t like the fact that gefilte fish was off the menu because it was out of season. Others kvetched that Saul’s grass-fed corned beef sandwiches were smaller and more expensive than ones they enjoyed back East.

Things reached such a crunch point that, in 2010, the restaurant owners held a “referendum on the deli menu” with Michael Pollan, Willow Rosenthal, founder of City Slicker Farms, chef and radio host Evan Kleiman and author Gil Friend joining the pair on a sold-out panel in Berkeley.

“It mostly boils down to nostalgia, said Levitt at the time. “We have so many culinary memories under one roof.”

Meanwhile, expect to see Levitt and Adelman at the Gourmet Ghetto restaurant for a while yet.

And Levitt, in particular, is not done talking about the tensions inherent in reinventing the Jewish deli for the farm-to-table era. On March 15, he will give a talk at JCC East Bay to mark the 30th anniversary of Saul’s in which he will address the question, “What does it mean to be an authentic, vibrant, relevant Jewish deli today?”After the discussion, participants will move to Saul’s for a sampling of the deli’s dishes. Tickets are $36 including dinner — details and tickets available at JCC East Bay.

Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen is at 1475 Shattuck Ave. (at Vine Street), Berkeley. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook and Twitter.

Berkeley’s newest parklet opens outside Saul’s Deli (11.12.15) 
Saul’s owner applies to build parklet in front of deli (01.14.15) 
Berkeley’s first parklet opens in the Gourmet Ghetto (09.12.14)
Berkeley’s first two parklets coming this fall (06.19.14)
Berkeley parklets stir up excitment, apprehension (07.08.2014)
Berkeley officials get closer to public “parklet” policy (06.10.13)
North Berkeley merchants want parklets for the people
Organic or authentic? The Saul’s deli debate (2.4.10)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...