Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman. [Photo: Aubrie Pick]
A year has passed since Wise Sons Delicatessen opened up in the Mission, with classics like pastrami on rye, matzoh ball soup, smoked trout, and challah French toast all made in-house. The business began life as a pop-up at Jackie's Vinoteca & Cafe before transitioning to the Tuesday edition of the Ferry Building Farmers Market. Over the past year, Wise Sons has received praise from Michael Bauer, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine and, most importantly, Woody Allen, who many would argue is the ultimate judge of Jewish dining. Eater recently met with owners Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom to discuss their first year of business, and their plans for the future.
One year in, did things turn out the way you expected? What has surprised you?
Leo Beckerman: That we're open. [Laughs.] I'm still amazed.
Evan Bloom: I would say the whole thing has surprised us. We didn't really know what to expect. We're opening a Jewish deli on the corner of 24th Street and Shotwell in the Mission; a lot of people said we were crazy. At times we thought we were a little crazy. We still do. And I think the fact that people have come out to this neighborhood consistently for a Jewish deli has been the most surprising thing so far. And that we've been able to build a business. We have almost 20 employees, which is one of the things we're most proud of. We thought we would have maybe 10 or 12 [employees], if we were really busy.
LB: We talked about, in our original plans, the two of us plus three people.
Oh wow, so you were expecting a very small operation.
LB: We started what we thought was small. [The space] is about 30 seats, and we figured we'd start with 10 people inside and go from there.
So you weren't anticipating lines around the block.
EB: No. If I could predict that, I would be opening a lot more restaurants.
What's been your favorite part of the past year?
EB: Number one moment: we had a gentleman celebrate his 100th birthday at Wise Sons. It's a tie between that and Woody Allen eating here.
EB: That's the pinnacle for a Jewish deli. He doesn't eat out very often, from what I understand. And he's a very picky eater.
LB: I would agree with the 100th birthday. I also really liked doing Passover here. Before, we did it in a variety of locations.
EB: Passover is about having a home, right? So it was nice to have a home.
Did a lot of regulars come out for that? Or new faces?
EB: It was across the board. We had people who were in town for business and wanted somewhere to go. We had regulars who brought in their mothers and fathers, their grandparents. And we had people that drove up from Santa Cruz whom we had never met before, but who became regulars after that. And that's really what Passover is about: opening the doors and having a bunch of people, entertaining them and making sure people have a place to go. That was really special. The place is so much about community. It's not just about being a place that serves up a bunch of food and brunch. That's great and we enjoy that, but sometimes the best days are the slowest days, when we get to talk to customers who are so happy that we're here. And that's really what we thrive on.
LB: I like seeing the mix of people that are here. Essentially, every table is a communal table; I like seeing strangers sit next to each other.
EB: People make friends all the time.
LB: They share food.
EB: Or they meet in line. And they sit together and they order together. That's the spirit we're going for and when we see that happening, we know we've done something right.
Do you have favorite customers?
EB: I would say we have favorite customers and least favorite customers...
LB: [Our least favorite customers] are the most fun to talk about.
EB: They might be difficult, but they're still part of the experience, and part of owning a Jewish deli. And the fact that we give them something to complain about and they still come back, means we're doing something right.
LB: There's one couple that comes in here and always complains. When I see them coming, I'll tell whoever's taking their order that they will, guaranteed, send something back.
EB: And the food gets sent back every time.
LB: Every time.
EB: But they come back. [Laughs.] Favorites. For Leo, I would say Jordan is one of yours...it's hard to pick favorites.
LB: We have a number of regulars, and it's nice.
EB: Leo spends a lot of time in the front of house, so a lot of regulars' kids come in who really love him.
LB: Yeah, I love kids.
EB: Which is really fun. You might see one of them drop something on the floor, and Leo will bring out the broom and say, "OK, time to clean up" to this 5-year-old kid. The kids love Leo.
LB: I put this on the fridge.
A customer drew this for you?
LB: [Laughs] She must have been five. A little girl.
Do you know her?
LB: I mean, I just met her. She came with her family and we were all talking. Then, at the end of the meal, she and her mom came up and the mom was like, "Go on, you can give it to him." I was like, I gotta put that on the fridge. [Laughs.]
Of course, that's where you put artwork.
LB: That, to me, is awesome.
It sounds like some customers can add stress. When Woody Allen was here, did you know beforehand, and did you prepare?
LB: Yeah, we knew before.
EB: They called, said they were going to come in, and asked for a reservation. We don't take reservations, but...
LB:...we were slow that day.
EB: So I knew he was coming in. He ordered matzoh ball soup. I definitely made separate soup for him. I made sure it was perfect. I went through all the matzoh balls to find the perfect one. Even if he never comes back...
LB: He won't.
EB: He probably won't.
LB: For his 100th birthday.
EB: It's nice to know that I served him the best that I could.
He just ordered soup?
EB: Matzoh ball soup and a piece of kugel. A very Jewish order. His sister got pastrami with mayonnaise.
LB: Don't write that. Please.
EB: [Laughs.] Why?
LB: 'Cause I don't want to say that we served someone mayonnaise.
So, is he technically the only person who's been given a reservation?
EB: Well, let's put it this way: Woody Allen walked in on a Thursday, no problem. Sat right down. Mark Zuckerberg was here the following Saturday and waited an hour and a half.
LB: And, you know what, I was very impressed with Mark Zuckerberg. He wanted to be...
LB: Totally normal.
EB: People kept asking for pictures, and he was like, "I'm just trying to have breakfast."
LB: I give a lot of respect for him because he...
EB: ...came into a very busy restaurant...
LB: ...and didn't ask for anything special, he was totally normal, in every sense. I find him pretty respectful.
EB: Everyone wanted a picture with him. To post on Facebook.
Who else has come in that has caused a stir?
EB: I don't know. Those are the two. I mean, we've had a lot of food people come in here. I'm sure there's been others, but those are the two we know, and they happened to come in a couple of days apart. People probably sneak in who we don't notice. Michael Bauer ate here the other day and we didn't notice. [Laughs.] He wrote about the hamburger for his blog.
Are you happy that you didn't know he was here? Would it have caused too much anxiety otherwise?
EB: I don't know. He said he enjoyed it, so in the end that's all that matters. I would like to spot him, he's an important critic. But it's probably better. That means we serve the food the same to everybody. You don't want to give anybody special treatment.
When you were coming up with the menu, were there things that were unexpected hits? Or other items that didn't pan out?
EB: Fried kugel was an unexpected hit. Which was kind of an accident.
LB: And pastrami cheese fries were kind of a joke.
EB: Pastrami cheese fries were a joke. Chinese chicken salad, too. They were both things we put on that we weren't really sure about. Anything that we thought was going to be a hit and wasn't? You know, the burger...for all the praise our burger gets, we don't sell that many of them. But it's in every best-burger list. I think the regulars get it.
LB: The regulars get it, and there are people who come just for the burger. But more people come for pastrami.
EB: I wish we sold more burgers, because I think they're really good. What else? Tongue. We don't have it on the menu now, but we get a lot of people asking for it.
LB: Tongue is a huge battle.
EB: We'll run it as a special because we think people are going to order it, people ask for it. And then it doesn't sell.
And then when you don't have it, that's when people want it.
LB: Of course. Then people complain. I don't think we would sell more than one or two a day if we always had it on the menu.
What are your personal favorite menu items?
LB: I like the burritos from down the street. [Laughs.] But really, I think the schnitzel...
EB: The schnitzel and the club. But the schnitzel's been a big seller and we only run it as a special a couple days a week. I would say that, because you get sick of pastrami. Honestly. The other thing I really like on the brunch menu is the veggie hash, which is what I direct people towards if they are here for brunch and they don't want meat. That's a been a surprise, too; I guess there are a lot of vegetarians in San Francisco. We sell just as many veggie hashes as we do corned-beef hashes. Maybe more, which is surprising to me. It's a totally different dish, but it changes seasonally. Now it's butternut squash, brussels sprouts, leeks, cauliflower and potatoes, dressed with lemon. Then it has eggs and toast.
LB: Our french fries are also a big hit. People like the fries. As do I.
EB: [Laughs.] Yeah, we eat too many fries.
When you were creating Wise Sons, did you have a deli you admired, or was a favorite that served as inspiration?
EB: We had nostalgia and feelings we got when we went to these delis and the people we ate with. But I don't think we wanted to make the food taste like "x."
LB: Yeah, we didn't model this place after anything.
EB: The only thing here that's an homage to anywhere else is the No. 19, which is taken from Langer's in Los Angeles.
LB: And the Chinese chicken salad.
EB: Sure, but that's not from any one particular place.
LB: No, but it's very L.A.-deli.
EB: Chinese chicken salad is on every menu in Los Angeles, deli or not. We can thank Wolfgang Puck for that. But for us, so much of this is, like what we've said, how you feel when you come in and how you feel when you leave. And that's what we're trying to hit. Provide good food, but provide equal or better atmosphere.
Do you read everything that's written about Wise Sons? Do you read reviews on Yelp?
LB: I read Yelp.
EB: Leo reads Yelp. I'm in the kitchen and I don't read it. I haven't read it since our first week. We're not allowed to talk about it in front of me.
What's your reason for not looking at it?
EB: Well, let's just say it bothers me.
LB: It's difficult to pour your heart and all your time into something and then hear people make comments without understanding what's going on.
EB: We know what our weak points are at this point, but Leo's looking for trends. I'm glad he wants to do it, because I don't. I don't know what it looks like on Yelp. I wouldn't Google Wise Sons because of it.
LB: We do things a certain way and we do them to our standards. We could, for example, make the exact same sandwich and for one person it's too fatty, and for another person it's too lean. So, there's really no panacea. There's no one item that is perfect for everyone and I think if we tried to do that, we would fail at everything. Of course we want everyone to have the best experience and the best meal possible, but I can't mold everything to know exactly what your personal tastes are. And that's hard. People get upset that you can't come in here and get a pastrami sandwich at 9 in the morning. But I know very well why you can't. And I can explain that and that's how it is.
EB: I imagine that's a big gripe people have.
LB: Or "Why do you close at 3?"
EB: "Why is the line so long? Why was my wait so long?" You saw the line. I can't control that. "Why are you so busy? Why don't you have enough seats?" I'm sorry.
LB: [Laughs.] We've gotten that question, "Why don't you have more space?"
EB: "It's great, but the wait was forever." Well then, don't wait. I can't help it. I wish I could. People that really care will tell us or e-mail us. We're open to speaking to people. People come in all the time who tell us when something isn't right. I'll tell you a story from yesterday: a girl had an egg shell in her matzoh ball. I'd much rather she told me and let me make it right, which I did, than have her go and give me one star on Yelp. Tell me.
LB: Yeah, we want you to have a good experience. We didn't do it to hurt you! [Laughs.]
EB: We're not putting razor blades in stuff.
For the next year, can you tell me more about future projects, plans to expand?
LB: We really want to expand our hours.
EB: Yeah, dinner. And being open on Tuesdays. Right now we're at the Ferry Building on Tuesdays, but we're closed here. And that's really been an issue of production, space and staff. We are very proud of and love the people that work for us. They possess difficult skills. We do make a lot of eggs and there's a lot of brunch stuff, but slicing meat takes time to do correctly. For that reason, we're choosy about who we hire, and it takes time to train them. We want to get things right before we expand. When we first opened, we were open till 6 p.m. After a week, we realized we just couldn't.
LB: We stopped serving food around 4 p.m., because we ran out. [Laughs.]
EB: If we made it that long.
So to prepare everything, you had to close earlier.
EB: Yeah, we had to close and we had to respect our staff. People can only work so much. But we're looking to grow. Part of that growth will involve finding somewhere where we can bake our breads off-site. [As Inside Scoop reported, they found a space earlier this week.] So that's a goal of ours, to open a bakery. Whether it's just a commissary space, or retail as well. That's the number-one goal. And to expand our catering business, because there's really not a whole lot of options. A lot of people come in for catering at the holidays, and we want to keep that throughout the year.
Where do you make your bread now?
EB: Here. In the evening, when we would be serving dinner.
LB: People get angry. People yell.
EB: I had someone kick the wall.
LB: "What kind of deli closes at 3?!"
EB: Cussing out in front of their kids.
EB: Oh yeah. "Come on, little Johnny!" [Laughs.] Sorry. We're closed on Monday because we produce everything on Mondays and the gate's closed. It says Closed on the sign, and the chairs are on the tables, and people still open that gate and ask, "Are you open?" [Laughs.] Does it look like we're open? "We drove all the way out here from Palo Alto." Well, our hours are online. Or you can call. There's an assumption that a deli is always open.
LB: And we do this differently from almost anyone. Most delis have a much larger menu. And make almost nothing. As opposed to us, we make almost everything.
Once you're able to stay open for dinner, have you thought about what you'd like to have on the menu?
EB: It will be sandwiches for sure, because there are some people who can't make it down here during the day, and don't want to come down here on the weekend when it's mobbed. I definitely think a couple of breakfast items. French toast all day is awesome. And then a couple of dinner plates; old-school. Leo likes to talk about doing a turkey dinner.
LB: I do like a turkey dinner.
EB: Or brisket and potatoes. A whole meal. I don't want to talk about what our price point's going to be, because we haven't figured that out. But when was the last time you saw a restaurant with an early bird special? Come in and get salad, brisket, potatoes, and like, Jell-O for dessert.
LB: Jell-O. Love Jell-O. A Jell-O mold.
EB: There's a lot of things we want and are trying to do here, but it's really about keeping the place classic and affordable. We're not looking to do anything fancy at dinner. It's about hearty food—hearty, Jewish food. Using good ingredients. That's really what it's about.
Will you continue to sell at the Ferry Building on Tuesdays?
LB: We feel a strong allegiance to the farmer's market.
EB: We love being at the market. It's a different crowd downtown. And I love being able to pick up produce and know the farmers that we're serving food to. And also, the Ferry Building took a chance on us; CUESA [Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture], they took a chance on us when we were a pop-up.
LB: When Evan applied, I told him not to waste his time. I thought there was no way they would let us in.
EB: And I said, "I'm going to do it anyway." Looking back, I have no idea why I did it.
LB: That was a real step up for us.
When you first started the pop-up, did you anticipate turning it into a restaurant?
EB: Yes, that was the goal. When we were first starting out, we were like, oh, we'll just open a restaurant. The pop-up wasn't even a consideration. I didn't want to do it. But we had a good opportunity, and we went for it, and thank God we did it. It's the only time you'll hear me say Leo was right.
LB: You said you loved me earlier.
EB: That wasn't on the record.
LB: Yes, it was.