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Finding Family: The Longtime Faces Behind the Counters of L.A.'s Delis

Learn more about the culture of Jewish delis in Los Angeles on "The Migrant Kitchen" S3 E1: The Jewish Deli. Watch now.

Several Los Angeles delis are family-run operations passed down through generations, and the stories that unfold through these deli families tell a tale not only of professional connections but personal as well. Owners tend to be actively part of the day-to-day operations. By their side are many trusted employees who have also given their passion and dedication to these beloved establishments, often for several decades.  Here’s a look behind the counter at some of the longstanding figures serving up delicious Jewish comfort food.

The Factor’s Families that Keep Their Growing Deli and Catering Business Thriving

At Factor’s, it’s always busy, but somehow the orders are made without a hitch because of the decades of experience not only of the Markowitzes but of the many families that have grown up at the deli. Large orders for life cycle events often arrive, and no one bats an eyelash. For a bris for a baby boy to a Jewish funeral to high holidays, nothing seems impossible for this well-oiled machine honed by years of experience.

When Herman Markowitz died of cancer, his daughters Debbie and Suzee were just teenagers. “We were so young. It was like an emotional attachment,” says Suzee. “The truth be told, every time we get tired of it, we’d go across the street, and we look at it and say, ‘He would be so proud we can make it another ten years.’ So I have already been here over 40 years.”

A large staff works together with the Markowitzes, so it can keep on going decade after decade. “We have a really good core group of at least ten people that have been here more than 30 years,” says Suzee. 

One of these people is Silverio Perez, who began working at Factor’s when he was 14 years old after he moved to Los Angeles from near Guadalajara, Mexico. He took on the mantle from his father, who was already working there. Three brothers have also worked at Factor’s. Now his son has joined the staff.

 “I started washing dishes, then busboy, then kitchen,” says Perez. “I was helping prep. I was doing the best that I can and just started growing and growing.  People start to leave, and I started taking on more responsibility. Then I learned everything. Then I moved to the front kitchen.”

Along with increased responsibility, he also found a growing love for the food he helped serve, “At that time Jewish food was new to me. At first, I did not really like it, and now I love it. In the beginning, I liked the chicken soup with kreplach, later with matzo ball. My favorite sandwich is the Rueben.”

Perez has learned the responsibilities in every station, and he passes on his knowledge to each newcomer at the deli. “I worked in every single department. Dishwasher, busboy, prep cook, chef. I was the cook on the line. I was the deli man,” says Perez.

Silverio Perez at Factor's | Julie Wolfson MKs3
Silverio Perez at Factor's | Julie Wolfson

One would think his passion would wane after so many years at Factor’s, but the truth is quite the opposite. “I love Factor’s,” says Perez. “This is my home. I love to be here. I love what I do. I like to help anybody who needs help.  Sometimes, the cooks need help. I help them out. Sometimes, I come and do a service as a waiter.”

Suzee feels thankful for head chef Perez and the many employees who have stayed at their jobs for so many years “It’s everything. First of all, this is a total village that makes this place happen. We cannot do it without them,” she says. “And since we all grew up together. We learned as we went along.  And now his son started working here. So, with his father, they are three generations. My father, my sister and I and her daughter, we are three generations.” Perez adds, “My kids love Factor’s. My son who is 11 years old cannot wait to come and work here.  He loves to be here. “

Continuing a Family Tradition at Art’s Delicatessen

Harold Ginsburg is one of the blessed few who knew in sixth grade just what he was meant to do in life. “My friends’ parents tell me this story,” says Ginsburg, “That at graduation we all got up to answer the question, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ Some of the girls said, ‘I want to be a veterinarian.’ Some of the boys said, ‘I want to be a playboy photographer’. I got up and said, ‘I want to run my dad’s deli.’ And I got a standing ovation.”

Ginsburg runs Art’s Deli in Studio City, which his parents opened in 1957. “I started working making sandwiches when I was 13,” says Ginsburg. “My mom still is working here. She is the general manager and in charge of the wait staff. She is here six days a week.”

Not only do owner-generations keep this community gathering space running, so do its longtime employees. “Our deli manager Fernando Gonzalez started out as a busboy 40 years ago, when he was 17 years old,” says Ginsburg. “He has just worked his way up and has been the deli manager for quite a long time.”

Theirs are the familiar faces that Art’s regular customers count on seeing every day. “We have people who come in almost every day. With their spouse, some are still working. They do their writing here. A couple of them are just retired,” says Ginsburg. “We get a little bit of everything.  Plus, we are starting to get a lot of young families coming in.”

Langer’s #19 and the Men Who Make Them

Norm Langer has been working at Langer’s since 1963. “My dad started this. This is his creation. This is his baby. I have taken it to where it is now.” It takes a team of more than forty people to serve up their menu including Langer’s #19 sandwiches, made with hot pastrami, coleslaw, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese on seeded rye bread. And Langer knows how lucky he is to find his crew. “My employees are part of my family,” says Langer.

“Norm’s is very family-oriented,” agrees Maricruz Silva, who assists Norm Langer in the office and restaurant.  “A lot of our employees get that feeling. They feel welcome. They feel at home. That’s one of the reasons that they stay.” Langer’s offers his employees union benefits, which help them feel their work is valued — and it is, especially when taking a closer look at a deli’s workload. Every day, the deli staff makes hundreds of sandwiches and menu items including potato pancakes and braised lamb shanks.

Langer counts on his team to care about quality as much as he does. He has a few linchpins in the kitchen to make sure each dish that comes out is worthy of being part of the menu. One of these men is Jaime Castañeda, who moved to Los Angeles from Mexico 42 years ago. He has worked at Langer’s for 31 years.

Jaime Castañeda at Langer's | Julie Wolfson MKs3
Jaime Castañeda at Langer's | Julie Wolfson

On a typical day, Castañeda arrives at 6 a.m. when he preps the pastrami for lunch. “The pastrami will have to steam for anywhere from four to six hours for it to be nice and tender, the way we like to serve it,” he says. After that, Castañeda oversees everything. “I can supervise just about everywhere in the kitchen, back of the kitchen for all of the products that we make. Different restaurants have pastrami, but it is not the same as Langer’s pastrami. The way you handle it. The way you steam it.” Langer’s has been buying meat from RC Provisions since the beginning.

That pastrami has developed a legendary following at Langer’s, especially for fans of the #19 sandwich. On the weekends, there are lines down the block waiting for seats at the counter and tables. “After doing business like this for many years we get used to the crowds,” says Castañeda. “It slows for a half an hour then all of a sudden you are up to your knee in alligators. Come 10 a.m. every morning; we have sliced bread ready and meats to go through lunch. If it is a thousand people or 50 people, we are ready. Saturdays, it's pretty funny. It's festive. You are working, and you just keep going and going you look up and all of the sudden it is 4 p.m. And it’s time to go home.”

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Castañeda feels proud of his current kitchen staff. “This is one of the best teams I have had in my life working here at Langer’s. We try to get along together with everybody,” he says. “Everybody helps each other. And we keep going.”

Jose Luis Sanchez has worked alongside with Castañeda for 31 years. He moved to Los Angeles in 1987 from Puebla, Mexico. In 1992, he started at Langer’s.  “I started working here as a busboy, then after some years, Norm Langer decided to move me to the deli. That was my first time.”

“He saw Luis was a quick learner,” says Castañeda. “He liked the way he moved around. He started cutting bread. Rye is very important to Langer’s. The care he takes with what he does. He is a perfectionist.”

Working at Langer’s for so long has had a positive impact on the Castañeda and Sanchez families. Being part of a union, and having medical, dental and other benefits makes staying at these jobs year after year attractive. “The hours are very nice. You get up early, come in early, and get off early. I get medical insurance and enough money to take care of my family. I like working here,” says Castañeda, despite the grueling pace of work.

“The deli business looks easy,” says Castañeda.  “But it takes a lot of practice. It takes consistency of coming into work every day and trying to do better than you did yesterday. We always strive to keep up the quality. Whether it is bread or sandwiches or cutting up pastrami or cooking or steaming corned beef, it takes a lot of consistency and a lot of care for things. The pastrami we serve here is well-known in the United States, and we get people from all over the world coming here to taste it.”

Jose Luis Sanchez working on rye bread | Julie Wolfson MKs3
Jose Luis Sanchez working on rye bread | Julie Wolfson

It’s All in the Families

One can be forgiven for thinking L.A.’s delis would compete with each other, but that isn’t the case. Because of L.A.’s sprawl, delis find themselves reaching out to their counterparts in other neighborhoods for advice or simply in friendship. Studio City is connected to Beverly Hills and West Hollywood through the deli community. “All of us who that are still in this and are still the same families, we all know each other,” says Ginsburg. “We all talk to each other. David Mendelson from Nate ‘n Al is my friend and also with Debbie from Factor’s. My cousins went to high school with them. Everybody knows everybody.”

Ginsburg continues, “With Brent’s, Ron Peskin, worked here for my parents in 1966 before he bought the business. I think my mom went to high school at North Hollywood High with his wife. Everybody has known everybody forever and a day. My dad when he first got here worked at Nate ‘n Al for two years. I know those brothers very well.”

When Noah Wexler wanted to expand his deli pop up concept that started at Mezze, he turned to Norm Langer for inspiration and advice. Wexler has fond memories of going to Langer’s with his grandparents and a child.

Suzee Markowitz has known the Canter family for many years. Their children went to third grade together. “They were the best-fed class,” says Markowitz. “And Micah from Wexler’s is married to my friend’s daughter!”

 “It is not an easy business. It is a real labor of love. The blessings are that I have met so many wonderful families through the years. Made so many great connections and life experiences because of the people I have met here,” says Markowitz.  “And every day is different.”

Top Image: Factor's dining room | Julie Wolfson 

 

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