They’ve all owned Saul’s! (Clockwise from left) David Rosenthal, Peter Levitt, Sam Tobis, Jesus “Chuy” Mendoza, Karen Adelman and Andra Lichtenstein. Credit” Daniil Vishnevskiy

Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen
1475 Shattuck Ave. (near Vine Street), Berkeley

It’s well-known that Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman, the co-owners of Berkeley institution Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen for the last 26 years, have been trying to sell the business since 2016. They came close to finding a buyer in early 2020, in fact, but pandemic insecurities foiled the sale. But now they’re ready to share what Saul’s regulars might have guessed for months now: two new partners have been named at the restaurant, and will eventually take over full ownership in the coming years.

The new partners are longtime Saul’s chef Jesus “Chuy” Mendoza and Sam Tobis, the owner of Oakland’s Grand Bakery since 2017. But “It’s not a super clean cut, like, here’s your money, goodbye,” Adelman said.

“Sam made it clear that he wanted to come in and learn from us and meet our regular customers through us,” so Levitt and Adelman will remain at the business for now, just in a reduced capacity. Both are in their early 60s, and their goal is to fully transfer ownership to the new partners gradually, probably over the next several years.

“Chuy and I compliment each other, so that I can focus more on the things I do well,” Tobis said, describing the Saul’s family as “a strong core of people who have been working here for years.”

Added Mendoza, “We are a really strong team. I’m excited and happy to be part of the future of this great restaurant.”

One of the reason it took so long to find a buyer for Saul’s, Adelman and Levitt said, is because they couldn’t sell Saul’s to just anyone. Instead, they sought out new owners who understand the restaurant’s unique role as not only a longstanding and popular restaurant, but also as a Jewish gathering spot.

Saul’s co-owner Peter Levitt shows off the restaurant’s homemade bagels. July 17, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

Before Saul’s was Saul’s, it opened as a lunch counter called the Pantry Shelf in 1955. It wasn’t a deli per se, though it had “delicatessen” in big letters above the door and sold deli sandwiches along with burgers.

Some decades later, David Rosenthal bought the business and renamed it Rosenthal’s. That lasted until 1986, when Andra Lichtenstein put together a partnership to buy the deli, naming it after her father, Saul Lichtenstein. Both Rosenthal and Lichtenstein are still regulars at the restaurant today.

Adelman started as a server at Saul’s in 1989, and Levitt became chef there in 1995 after time in the kitchen at Chez Panisse and Oliveto. They bought Saul’s together in 1996 and have co-managed it ever since.

They are certain they found the right people to carry the Saul’s legacy forward.

“The new energy there feels exciting,” Adelman said. “Both deeply care about the philosophy and spirit of the place. Chuy has been working with our employees so long that people work really hard for him, and he and Peter are super close. Sam is really smart and has virtually no ego in it, which is rare in the restaurant industry. It’s a passion project for them and not just a job.”

A decade ago, when Mendoza began work at Saul’s, he was unfamiliar with the cuisine, Adelman said. But like Levitt, who also didn’t grow up with traditional Jewish deli food (he’s from Johannesburg, South Africa) he’s learned a tremendous amount about the dishes since then, eating whatever deli he can when he travels and reading everything he can get his hands on.

Tobis, originally from New York, came to the area to attend Cal and never left. (His parents and sister have since joined him here.) He met Levitt in 2017 after he had taken over Grand Bakery, a longtime Saul’s vendor that sold its baked goods to the deli.

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.
The Saul’s Deli space (seen here from above) began as the Pantry Shelf, and was later known as Rosenthal’s. Credit: Sierra Delgado

Levitt made it known then that he was looking for a buyer, but Tobis turned the overture down, saying that he had enough on his plate. But his interest in the deli grew over time, and since last November he has been a noticeable presence at Saul’s, learning the ropes, while Mendoza continues running his domain, the very kitchen he’s worked in for over 10 years.

Tobis said Levitt has been a huge influence on how he runs Grand Bakery. For example, he’s switched to using all organic, heirloom flour for Grand’s baked goods.

“Peter came up in the heart of the California food movement, and I think he’s one of the most underappreciated deli men in the country,” Tobis said. “Saul’s is East Coast and Eastern Europe meets Middle East, from comfort shtetl fare to falafel and house-made pita every day. This cross-pollination of food from the Jewish diaspora is just fabulous.”

The one thing Tobis hopes to change is the bakery program at Saul’s.

Grand Bakery’s kitchen is parve (meaning no butter can be used), but Tobis has brought plenty of general baking know-how to Saul’s, which does not restrict its menu to kosher dishes. He has also hired a new baker, and has converted part of the Saul’s office into a new area devoted to baking.

Traditional goods, such as babka, rugelach and black-and-white cookies, have improved over the previous iterations, and some new items have been added, like tahini cookies. (Saul’s already made its own bagels and pita in-house.)

Sam Tobis at work in Grand Bakery Courtesy: Sam Tobis

Even though he has ownership in two East Bay Jewish food businesses, Tobis said each is distinct and will remain that way.

“I’m very excited to continue the legacy, culture and food experience that Karen and Peter have cultivated,” he said. “Grand Bakery will maintain its own identity and kosher experience.”

For their part, Levitt and Adelman couldn’t be happier with the arrangement, one that allows flexibility in their schedule for the first time in decades. For example, Levitt recently traveled to Poland to volunteer with World Central Kitchen, cooking for Ukrainian refugees for two weeks in May and then staying in Berlin and traveling, knowing Saul’s was in good hands. He was away for four months, something that would have been unthinkable until recently.

“Peter doesn’t want to be the guy doing it anymore, but his curiosity and talent will remain part of Saul’s,” Adelman said.

Adelman is happy to stay on doing social media, graphics and other tasks for now, while taking her time to figure out what’s next.

“It’s hard to know who I am without Saul’s, as I’ve been there so long,” Adelman said. “People see me and they suddenly get hungry.”

A version of this story first appeared on J., the Jewish News of Northern California. Reprinted with permission.  

Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...