Someone once called Zabar's, which sells more food and cookware per square foot than any other retail food business in the world, the Fauchon of New York.
Both the owners of the elegant, dignified Parisian emporium of food and of the brash, cluttered, noisy upper West Side hole in the wall would be insulted.
It isn't that Zabar's clientele is any less elegant, rich or powerful. Teddy kennedybuys all his French-Italian espresso there - 10 pounds at a time. Chauffeured limousiness are almost always double-parked in front of the dinky-looking building squeezed between a neighbourhood liquor store and a dry cleaner.
When Zabar's was selling Cuisinart food processors well below the retail price elsewhere, one Washington flew up on the shuttle to purchase three of them, only to find there was a limit of one to a customer. He managed to get back in line in another set of clothes and purchase a second one. After that they were gone.
For special occasions and special reasons, Zabar's will see to it that your order is put on the next flight if you'll agree to pick it up at the airport. When watergate was at its most intense, a late-night meeting of the staff in the prosecutor's office recessed so someone could meet the shuttle for an order of bagels, lox and cream cheese.
Twenty-five thousand people, including many Washingtonians who always try to include time for a Zabar's visit when they go to Manhattan, buy something at the store every week. Murray Klein, one of the three owners, is quite proud that "people come from all over and wait in line for an hour and get knocked around. You get black and blue when you come here," he said.
The patient clientele is willing to have their Gucci loafers stepped on and their Vuitton bags crushed in pursuit of a dazzling array of 7,000 food and equipment items that brings decision-making to a point of exquisite pain.
How to decide which of 40 kinds of breads or 20 kinds of goat cheese to buy? Should one choose Genoa piccolo, Toscano soppresata, kielbasa, pepperoni or debrini (just a smattering of the 100 different kinds of sausages and salamis available)? How much money is to be laid out for a filter coffee-maker? $3 or $1,000? $1,000? The store has already sold two dozen of that model and sells 1,000 of a "staple," $375 coffee-maker yearly.
A shrewd merchandizer, Klein undercuts the department stores on housewares:
"I can't bring people in to show them our smoked salmon is better than somewhere else, so I bring in housewares and sell them 30 percent cheaper than a department store. Even people on the East Side want to buy. And we still make a profit on them. This brings people into the store."
The food may or may not be a bargain. Others may or may not have better quality. But no one has the volume. In 25-by-100 feet, Zabar's does a $8-million business a year.
People shop there for a number of contradictory reasons. "I come here once a month because their food is very fresh and very tasty . . . and very expensive, but worth it," said a customer who travels from the East Side. "Their meats are fabulous, like their lox; their coffees are superb."
But another shopper said she only came because it was "convenient. It's got everything, but the quality is not as good as the East Side. They have wonderful buys in pots and pans."
On the other hand, a former Peace Corps volunteer and Florida native who has lived in six countries thinks Zabar's is "one of the cheapest places in New York. It isn't just a snobby East Side place and that's what's so refreshing. I went to seven places in three weeks. They were dumps. I know what I'm talking about."
Zabar's mystique or "canonization" is recent. Fifteen years ago it was just one of several "appetizer" and grocery stores founded by Louis Zabar in 1936. And it was indistinguishable from the dozens of others like it in the city. When the elder Zabar died in 1950, his sons took over, selling all but the present store at 80th and Broadway.
The store's well-publicized feud with Cuisinart hasn't hurt its recognition factor. In 1976, when the famous food processor was selling elsewhere for $200, Zabar's sold it for $149. The importer asked them to stop. When they didn't their supply of machines dried up.
Surreptitiously Klein accumulated 200 machines, buying them from small retailers. Then he told New York Magazine's Sales & Bargains column that the machines would go on sale for $135 each. By midmorning the first day of the sale the 200 were gone and the store had issued 960 rain-checks. Then Zabar's sued the importer.
This past December the antagonists settled out of court. Zabar's got 960 Cuisinarts which it sold to the rain-checked holders for $135. Included were an electric coffee grinder and five pounds of coffee beans. Klein says he is forbidden to spell out the terms of the settlement but said, "It cost us nothing. We're making money on it." In the meantime, they're touting a different food processor, made by Sanyo, which they are selling for $70. It's not a Cuisinart, but its good.
In the food line it may be smoked salmon (Nova Scotia) that has made the store's reputation. While not everyone thinks it's the best in town, more of it is sold here than anywhere else. Saul Zabar hand selects the salmon, mackerel, sturgeon, trout, etc. from the Brooklyn smokehouses that will permit him that privilege. Not all smoke-houses will, so he doesn't buy from them. Few other stores go to such trouble.Zabar's pays top dollar for the privilege and takes a small markup. Smoked salmon is the store's trade mark and apparently its least profitable item. It costs them $14.25 a pound; they sell it for $16. Klein guarantees: "Every fish we know by feel."
Saul Zabar goes through the same personal selection ritual with the 16 kinds of coffee beans that he roasts himself and which the store sells for a great deal less than elsewhere. "We have a large volume of sales so it's fresh and it's cheap," Klein explains, and an eavesdropping customer adds: "They also don't sell Ugandan coffee and that's important to me."
Not to Klein, however: "Why we don't buy it isn't political. It's not good coffee."
Every item prepared in the store's miniscule kitchen is samples by Saul Zabar. If his taste buds don't approve a salad, pate or cooked meat, it never makes it to the front of the store.
All the cheeses are sampled, too. Last year Zabar's purchased 5,000 pounds of Jarlsberg "because the price was going up," Klein explained. "We forgot about it and it got overripe so we sold it to another store."
This constant striving for perfection is, in part at least, the result of internal competition at the store: Murray Klein, Stanley and Saul Zabar are trying to outdo each other in their own bailiwicks. Stanley Zabar says they compete against themselves "because of Murray - his new concepts, new products. There's a constant need to prevent boredom, especially with Murray, who is always fighting for something new."
Klein, who was born in Russia and spent four years in a labor camp in the Urals, has obviously thought about it a great deal. "As a Jew, I was knocked around all my life. I was always told I was nothing. I came out with an inferiority complex, and so have to prove to myself everyday that I'm good.
"I change around the store three times a year because in my heart I'm a proletariat. I have to do things with my hands and I'm proud of it. Each change costs $70,000."
Klein is the first among equal partners: He runs the store, which means he's there six days a week from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Sunday he "rests," working only from 6 to 9 in the morning.
Stanley Zabar, who is in charge of the meat and produce departments, describes himself as "the peacemaker-financial adviser. In general," he said, "I stay out of Saul and Murray's way."
The internal competition only surfaces in the vibrancy one feels in the store. What one regular describes as "nice excitement and bustle."
The little touches of service don't hurt either, or as a customer commented: "Any store that takes American Express to pay for food has to be civilized."