By Krista Carter

Zabar’s celebrates its 80th year on the Upper West Side this year, and the store and its leaders show no signs of slowing down. I sat down for a chat with Saul Zabar to learn the secret to the store’s longevity.

Stepping through the large glass double doors at 80th street and Broadway I am immediately transported to another world. Customers hurry by, one to the artisanal cheese counter (cheddar and gouda and goat, oh my!) and another to the freshly baked bread. In the midst of the holiday season, everyone has an agenda, myself included. And while the grocery goodies are tempting, I know that there is more important business to attend to, namely, meeting with co-owner Saul Zabar to discuss business, sturgeon and everything in between.

zabars-1941Founded in 1934, Zabar’s has transformed from a single storefront to nearly an entire block megacomplex. The photo at left shows Zabar’s in 1941, when it was still a single 22-foot storefront. It was no easy feat. After the death of his father, 20-year-old Saul Zabar was confronted with a life-changing decision: to continue on with his studies at University of Kansas or return home to take over the family business. With no previous experience of running a business, it seemed unlikely that the young student would want to take up such an intimidating and arduous task, but Saul explains his decision, simply stating, “I either had to sell or try. I chose to try.”

Despite his professional inexperience, it is apparent that Saul Zabar has innate business acumen and sees opportunity when it presents itself. Unhappy with the coffee product on the market, Saul chose to source and roast his own. Zabar’s now produces an astounding 8,000 pounds of coffee per week at its Brooklyn facility. And when Keurig’s patent expired last year, Saul decided to introduce Zabar’s own Z-cups. They have become an instant hit.

Saul also capitalized on a real estate investment 30 years ago when he purchased his store’s five adjoining buildings, originally apartments, from the landlord. As rents in the city continue to climb, owning your own property is not just a luxury, but a necessary tool for survival.

While the landscape of the Upper West Side has changed dramatically over the years, Zabar’s continues to remain a fixture. When I try to pinpoint what it is exactly that sets Zabar’s apart from the others, Saul clarifies: “Family and an invested interest in the community.” Not to mention, if you’re looking for chazerei, look elsewhere. Dedication to excellent products is a major tenet that Zabar’s prides itself on. How can you sell 1,000 pounds of smoked fish each week if the quality is missing? The answer is, of course, you can’t.

To leave a comment to commemorate Zabar’s 80th anniversary, click here. You have until December 31.

saul zabar & harold
Saul Zabar and longtime Zabar’s butcher Harold Horowytz.

Note: Chazerei is Yiddish for junk. It also means non-Kosher, but we’re using the term colloquially here.

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