One of the great things about your first visit to Schwartz's in Montreal is that it is as fantastic as every one of your subsequent visits. You wait in a line snaking along St. Laurent Boulevard until you come face to face with a refrigerated window display of stacked briskets. A vapour cloud of steaming meat and spices greets you inside, blanketing your clothing for days. Under bright florescent lights, you're seated at a child-sized table, likely with total strangers, as you bathe in the hodgepodge sights of the place – burly carvers under faded photographs, harried waiters shouting orders, the orange sparks of embers from the charcoal grill, a haphazard gallery of yellowed newspaper clippings and snaps of B-list celebrities lining the walls.
The incredibly satisfying food never varies: hand-cut fries, tangy coleslaw, garlicky sour pickles. The smoked meat briskets are still slow-cured in barrels over the course of two weeks in a spice rub of salt, garlic, coriander, black pepper and other secret ingredients – pretty much the same way it's been done for 80 years. Smoked on-site, then left to steam for several hours, each brisket is dashed into slices by a few quick flicks of the carver's wrist, then deposited onto small slices of rye bread, slicked with yellow mustard and dropped, steaming and glazed with melted fat, in front of your face.
It's this experience – so brief, visceral and pure – that's made Schwartz's arguably the most famous restaurant in Canada, capturing the hearts of locals and visitors, French and English, alike. In a world of rapid innovation and vanishing neighbourhoods, Schwartz's remains a constant comfort.
So when news broke this week of the sale of the delicatessen, the reaction in the comments sections of newspapers, social networks and in private conversations was overwhelmingly fearful. I felt the need to immediately hop on a plane and grab a sandwich while I could. For now, Schwartz's is entering a dangerous period. A change in owners means a change in the rules of the game, and for those of us who love the famed Jewish delicatessen, change is never a good thing.
Hy Diamond, the departing owner who bought the deli in 1999 and sold it for health reasons last week, knew and appreciated that fact. Several years ago, Mr. Diamond told me that his ownership role was primarily stewardship … he was a curator. Though he opened a takeout counter next door in 2008, he left the original in the same condition as he purchased it, and refused, despite overwhelming pressure, to open a second location. Anything else, he said, would dilute Schwartz's magic.
It has already survived multiple owners, including Reuben Schwartz himself, a reputed gambler and philanderer, who, despite the quality of the smoked meat he began selling in 1928, lost the business several years after opening it due to outstanding gambling debts. Paul Nakis, a Montreal restaurateur and the lead investor in the group that just purchased the deli, says he doesn't plan to change much right away, according to comments made yesterday to The Globe and Mail. Asked about expansion plans, Mr. Nakis said, "There's definitely potential, but we haven't discussed anything like that among us." In diplomatic language, that means, essentially, everything's on the table. After all, if you pay $10-million (reportedly) for an investment, you expect a return.
Mr. Nakis and his partners could expand the current restaurant or add other locations, produce the meat in a larger, off-site facility and sell it through retail channels, and introduce more products to expand the menu's offerings. (One of Mr. Nakis's partners is Celine Dion's husband, René Angélil, who was a main investor in the Montreal smoked meat chain Nickels, which is to Jewish deli what Coffee Time is to the indie café.) Many delicatessens bought out have done this, though, in almost every case, it has been a disaster for both owners and customers.
The Carnegie and Stage delis in New York flirted with franchises, opening over a dozen locations around the United States in the 1990s. They all failed, diminishing the value of both brands and resulting in a drop in quality from which the delis have only recently recovered. Toronto's Shopsy's, once the city's corned beef palace, was sold to a number of buyers from the 1960s onward, including Unilever, who expanded locations, introduced a line of supermarket products and constantly added new items to the menu to the point where, though Shopsy's still exists in name, deli lovers consider it long gone. In the chase for a few extra points on the profit margin, flavour and the authenticity of a restaurant's identity are the first casualties.
In the end, the owners of these places were left with something less valuable than what they purchased.
Now, there are other places that have opened up recently in Montreal making smoked meat that is as good or even better. But the value of Schwartz's lies in the fact that it is unchanged; it's one of the last of its kind. Tamper with that, Mr. Nakis, try to improve it and you'll diminish its value, perhaps even ruin it forever. Stay the course, and you'll not only earn back your investment, you'll do your part in preserving this country's most beloved culinary icon.
Dave Sax is the Toronto-based author of Save the Deli
Special to the Globe and Mail