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Current Issue : 2009 Spring

Jack Lebewohl '74 / Second Avenue Deli

Today, Stanley and his brother Saul, who is now 80 and is the company's president, have built on that excitement. What started out as their parents' little smoked fish business is now a wildly successful New York institution, with 40,000 customers spending upwards of $50 million a year on 800 varieties of cheeses, 300 different prepared meals, dozens of types of smoked fish and appetizers, and some of the most fairly priced kitchen equipment going.

But profitability is only part of the equation. While the Zabars may be best known for their Nova Scotia lox and great prices on food processors, they've become renowned for their rather unorthodox "employee benefits" programs. If some companies treat their employees like family, the Zabars treat theirs even better than family. For instance, if an employee is in a financial bind, he is offered an interest-free loan. But that's not all: The Zabars also pay for up to a third of their employees' children's education.

"We believe that education is very important," says Zabar. "We will give a portion of up to what is allowed by the IRS towards any employee's child's college education." They not only help ensure that their employees' children go to college, but they invest heavily in their staff, teaching English classes and moving people up the ranks. It's not unusual to find a former floor sweeper who is now a department manager. "Wherever they come from, whatever race or religion, we don't care. We are just looking for quality of person. If they get in trouble we help them as long as they are straight shooting and as long as they understand that they have to look after the other people," explains Zabar.

To reward their longest-tenured employees, Zabar has six executive employees who have become part-owners of the business and receive a share in profits. These policies go a long way to explaining why two-thirds of Zabar's employees have been with the company in excess of 10 years and many, including their chef and manager of their cheese department, have remained for over 30 years.

Nurturing a Legacy

Making business decisions based on emotions like love and theories like good karma may not be the smartest tactic, but this is how businesses were run back in the day, and it's also the way a man named Abe Lebewohl ran his fabled pastrami-fueled deli on Second Avenue until his fatal shooting in 1996. The Deli, which was forced to relocate because of a rent hike, is no longer on Second Avenue, but it still bears the familiar old world Jewish menu as it did when it was downtown. While Abe is gone, his spirit is kept alive by his brother Jack and his grandchildren Josh and Jeremy. But that's not how things were supposed to go.

"I was born in 1948 in a displaced persons camp in Italy," explains Jack Lebewohl. "It was every immigrant's dream for his or her children to receive an education and become a professional. My brother Abe was 17 years older than I, and he never wanted me to work in the deli. While I worked behind the counter from the time I was six years old, everyone knew that I would be getting an education. Abe insisted."

And that's the way things went. Lebewohl got his education, graduating from Brooklyn Law School and working first for Arthur Anderson and then moving into real estate law and investment. After Abe was killed, Lebewohl stepped into an operational role at the deli which he now shares with his two sons—Josh, a real estate lawyer, and Jeremy, a veteran of the Israeli army.