A new owner was ready to take the helm at Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen this month, but the coronavirus crisis put a halt to those plans. The restaurant’s sale fell through, and today, after nearly two weeks of operating as a takeout-only operation, longtime owners Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman have decided to temporarily close the popular North Berkeley deli, with hopes that the business will reopen again at some point in the future.
Saul’s opened at 1475 Shattuck Ave. in 1986. Levitt and Adelman, who started at the restaurant as, respectively, line cook and waitress, bought the business in 1995. Levitt is a Chez Panisse alumnus, a heritage that’s hinted at in Saul’s menu of housemade Jewish deli staples, like latkes, blintzes and loaded pastrami sandwiches, made with locally sourced, high-quality ingredients.
In 2016, news first circulated that Levitt and Adelman were searching for a buyer for the restaurant. Locals expressed shock and disappointment, but the pair assured the public they would find a buyer who would run the restaurant as-is for years to come.
In February, Levitt and Adelman alerted customers they had secured a new owner who would make sure “Saul’s is staying Saul’s.”
A little over two weeks ago, Levitt and Adelman anticipated the finalization of the sale. They felt excited about retiring after owning the business for 25 years. But, on March 12, the buyer’s bank canceled loans to restaurants because of the threat to the industry posed by COVID-19. The loan was not funded and the sale fell apart.
“It was a gut punch. I couldn’t breathe and our hearts were sore,” Levitt told Nosh by phone.
That weekend, public fear of COVID-19 escalated and Saul’s sales plummeted by 60%. On March 15, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered restaurants to reduce capacity by half and set tables six feet apart. Levitt and Adelman closed the restaurant that day.
The next day, the Bay Area-wide shelter-in-place order went into effect, ending dine-in service at all local restaurants. Gov. Newsom’s decree of a state-wide stay-at-home order later that week, on March 19, established the moratorium on dining in as indefinite.
“One day we were working and the next day we realized no one is going to be working anymore,” Levitt said of the sequence of events.
After getting past the initial disappointment about the situation, Levitt said he resolved to “pull up socks and get to work.” Saul’s operated as a takeout operation with a skeleton crew of 10. Levitt had to lay off 30 workers, and the remaining employees quickly had to learn and practice new sanitizing and social-distancing measures, including educating customers on how things had changed. Saul’s was open from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., offering a limited menu for curbside pick-up and delivery. The restaurant urged customers to pay online or order by phone to protect the health of its staff and customers.
But the owners decided their efforts weren’t enough. After one final service Thursday night, Saul’s ended its takeout system, turned off the lights and shut its doors.
“People would get really close to our cashier, people would try to come in more than one at a time,” Levitt explained by phone Friday morning.
With a small management staff, Levitt reasoned that the risk was too great. If anyone got sick, he said, “we would’ve most likely made the others sick without knowing, not to mention the customers.”
Levitt has faith Saul’s can outlive the pandemic and reopen when the crisis has passed. He hopes the $2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress will allow him to keep paying some salaried staff while they shelter in place. In the meantime, like many local businesses that have been forced to close, he has created a GoFundMe fund for employees and set up a way for supporters to purchase gift cards online. The idea of a group of employees buying the business — after the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions it places on restaurants passes, that is — is one he said he and Adelman would consider.
The plan for now, according to Levitt, is to wait and then “make Saul’s strong again” so it can be passed onto the next generation.
“It’s the only way we’ll ever retire,” he said.