The Real Story Behind Schwartz's Deli

What you never knew about the Montreal's famous smoked meat spot.
The Real Story Behind Schwartz's Deli

Not simply a culinary institution, Schwartz’s Deli has been regarded as something of a legendary icon of Montreal. Quite literally, in fact, as several fantastical stories exist regarding the famed smoked meat purveyor's origins.

One myth claims the deli was founded by a Russian composer who tacked on the Jewish-sounding name "Schwartz's" to add legitimacy to the establishment. Another tale recounts how the original founder were two widows, with others claiming the deli's ownership was all based on one fated poker game.

Even the recipe for Schwartz's famed smoked meat has entered the realm of mythology. Some claim Schwartz's was the very first to smoked meat deli in all of Montreal. Or, at the least, the deli perfected the smoked meat recipe far before any other delicatessen.

But how much about the many stories surrounding Schwartz's is fact and what is fiction?

Delving into Montreal's smoked meat history, we'll try to answer exactly that, in our feature on the real story behind Schwartz's Deli.

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A Brief History On Smoked Meat In Montreal

Contrary to what many might think, Schwartz's was definitely not the institution to introduce smoked meat to Montreal. In fact, by the time Schwartz's opened in 1928, smoked meat was already a popular and well-established culinary tradition in the city.

Smoked meat itself is generally regarded as a Romanian creation, with invading Turkish armies originally introducing the recipe to Jewish communities in Romania, according to Eiran Harris, Archivist Emeritus of the Jewish Public Library in Montreal.

While this origin of smoked meat can't quite be confirmed, many experts agree that the recipe is of Jewish-Romanian descent.

Harris claims Arron Sanft was the first to introduce smoked meat to the Montreal public, as evidenced by a 1894 advertisement in Canada's first Jewish calendar. Sanft's shop, dubbed "A. Sanft Kosher Meat" was located on 560 Craig street (now Saint Antoine) and claimed to be a "manufacturer of salami, corned beed, and smoked meat."

By the early 1900s, several other kosher delis, all boasting smoked meat, popped up in Montreal. More than a few were on Saint Laurent (or nearby), with St. Laurent functioning as the major commercial artery in Montreal's original Jewish neighbourhood.

For a while, Montreal-made smoked meat was actually regarded as inferior in comparison to its New York City counterpart. This was more of an extension of the inferiority complex experienced by Jewish communities in Canada rather than a bias backed by an real fact or flavour. To seem superior, many deli's claimed to use NYC-style methods, or actually stock products of the American city.

But the negative connotation linked to Montreal smoked meat would disappear by the 1930s. After more than thirty years, a sense of pride would be instilled into the city's style of smoked meat, a cognitive shift that heralded the success of Montreal's most famous deli, Schwartz's.

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The Early Days Of Schwartz's Deli

Rueben Schwartz was the original founder of Shwartz's, using his own namesake to title the now-infamous deli.

Opening its doors on December 31st, 1927, Schwartz's defined itself as a kosher delicatessen store that used Romanian smoking techniques.

Not exactly the most well-liked guy, Reuben was widely known to have more than a few flaws and vices. Aside from being a misogynist and exploiter of younger workers, Reuben frequently hired sex workers and gambled.

During the economic depression experienced in North America during the 1930s, only a few years after Schwartz's opened, Reuben's illicit activities weren't exactly the smartest business decisions. To put it plainly, Reuben wasted his money, which put his deli at serious risk.

But despite Rueben's poor business sense, his deli did enjoy some success thanks to "the secret recipe from smoking meats which he brought from Romania." So while Reuben proved not to be the best businessman, his business was appealing to the public, and a certain buyer: Maurice Zbriger.

A talented musician of Russian descent, Zbriger took the deli off Reuben's hands in 1931, after the original owner was nearly bankrupt. But Zbriger wouldn't let it be known he was owner of the deli, not wanting to be associated with a "pedestrian eatery", notes Eiran Harris.

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Not that anyone could really tell that the ownership of Schwartz's even changed. Zbriger kept Reuben on after his acquisition of the deli, giving him the role of manager, a position he held until his death in 1971. So to the casual customer, Schwartz's was seemingly still owned and operated by its founder.

There's also a unique little bit of mystery to the relationship of Zbriger and Reuben. Apparently, after Zbriger had purchased the deli, he invited Reuben to live in his home. Reuben accepted, and he stayed with Zbriger for 34 years.

Now, Zbriger did have a wife, who was known to be quite sickly, but that isn't to say we can't rule out a romantic edge to Reuben and Zbriger's relationship. This was the 1930s after all, and homosexual relationships weren't exactly made to be public information.

That strange piece of history aside, Schwartz's remained popular throughout the 30s, despite the economic downturn experienced in the city and nation at-large. If anything, Schwartz's survival through the Great Depression and following war is a testament to the deli's popularity and quality; if Montrealers were willing to spend 13 cents on a sandwich and drink, then the smoked meat must have been very good.

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Schwartz's Into The Modern Day

Zbriger would remain the silent owner of Schwartz's for decades, no doubt helping the deli acquire legendary status. It was during this time (between the 1940s-1950s) that the famous Montreal Steak Spice was developed at Schwartz's by an employee named Morris "The Shadow" Sherman, who used the deli's pickling spices on his steaks with delicious results.

During the years of Zbriger's reign, the influence of Schwartz's would also be felt across the island of Montreal, with the deli inspiring other smoked meat vendors to open up shop.

Lester's Deli would open up on Bernard in 1951. The Main deli became an across-the-street competitor in 1974. Reuben's Deli came about two years later in 1976. Dunn's had opened the same year as Schwartz's, but would focus more on smoked meat in the 70s.

But as smoked meat took over Montreal (with more delis opening up in the city's urban core and beyond), Schwartz's would remain king.

Zbriger's role in Schwartz's ongoing success would eventually end in 1981, upon the owner's death. Strangely enough, it was Zbriger's nursemaid Armande Chartrand, who cared for him during his later years, that would become the new owner of Schwartz's. Choosing her above all others, Zbriger willed the deli to Chartrand.

Before being Zbriger's caretaker, however, Chartrand was an "impresario," meaning she organized the deli-owner-and-musicians concerts (and he held quite a few free ones thanks to Schwartz's income). Given Chartrand's organizational abilities, Zbriger thought she would be the prime successor to Schwartz's, and he wasn't wrong.

Chartrand remained owner and operator of Schwartz's for a full 18 years, until Hy Diamond bought the business in 1999. A former accountant for the deli, Diamond was the only owner to actually have a background in business, and he brought Schwartz's well passed the millennium, remaining owner until 2012.

As many know, the Nakis family (prominent restauranteurs involved with large changes like Baton Rouge) and celebrity couple Celine Dion and René Angélil would purchase Schwartz's in 2012, which worried many. People assumed the high-profile buyers would try to franchise the deli and water down its quality.

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Fortunately, the former never occurred, though some claim the caliber of the Schwartz's smoked meat has declined in recent years. Actually, both myself and Prime Minsiter Justin Trudeau are of this thinking, with others believing delis like Smoke Meat Pete are truer to smoked meat tradition.

Not that it makes much difference, because Schwartz's is a celebrity unto itself. The focus of Gazette columnist Bill Brownstein's book Schwartz's Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story, two documentary films (The Concert Man and Chez Schwartz), and Schwartz's: The Musical, this is one culinary institution that can survive some negative reviews.

If anything, Schwartz's doesn't even need Montrealers to survive, because the hordes of tourists who line up for the deli's sandwiches every day will surely keep the place in business for years to come. Not that Montrealers would ever stop going to Schwartz's, because in its near-90 year lifespan, the deli truly is a part of the city's history.

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