Zabar’s: A Fam­i­ly Sto­ry, with Recipes

  • Review
By – July 18, 2022

Like the world-renowned store itself, Zabar’s is over­flow­ing, chock-full of fam­i­ly his­to­ry, behind-the-scenes looks, tra­di­tion­al recipes, and, most of all, the dri­ve to offer the very best food at the low­est pos­si­ble prices. Lori Zabar, grand­daugh­ter of the founder and a his­to­ri­an and researcher, traces the family’s his­to­ry back to Ostropo­lia in Ukraine before fol­low­ing Zabar’s from its start as a fruit and veg­etable store in Brook­lyn to its com­mand­ing pres­ence on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Louis, pro­nounced Louie, Zabar was born Mord­ko Leib Zabar­ka, one of nine chil­dren in a com­fort­able, pro­gres­sive fam­i­ly in Ukraine. The unrest in Rus­sia after World War I and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary peri­od explod­ed in pogroms, and one night in Sep­tem­ber 1920 the Cos­sacks marched into the Zabarkas’ home, leav­ing four mem­bers dead and oth­ers wound­ed. Louis, who pur­sued the Cos­sacks with an ille­gal rifle, had to hide and, in the wake of dan­ger, decid­ed to emigrate.

Via Cana­da he even­tu­al­ly made his way to New York, where he reunit­ed with fam­i­ly mem­bers and ulti­mate­ly met and mar­ried Lil­ly Teit­el­baum, whom he knew from Ostropo­lia. The two worked side by side in a series of fruit and veg­etable stores until an aller­gy to fruit and veg­etable skin turned Louis to oth­er prod­ucts. A col­league sug­gest­ed he rent a counter in a store at Broad­way and 80th Street in a large­ly Jew­ish and com­fort­able neigh­bor­hood. In 1934, Louis opened Zabar’s, sell­ing del­i­catessen and smoked fish.

Now an expe­ri­enced shop own­er, Louis set his stan­dards high, demand­ing the finest qual­i­ty prod­ucts that he sold at the most afford­able prices, a prac­tice that Zabar’s upholds to this day. Enter­pris­ing and ambi­tious, Louis real­ized the com­pe­ti­tion that super­mar­kets, which offered a vari­ety of off-the-shelf prod­ucts, posed; and so he start­ed his own super­mar­kets even as he expand­ed Zabar’s. His plans were cut short by his death at forty-nine in 1950, but Saul and Stan­ley, his old­er sons, then in their twen­ties, took over the busi­ness and con­tin­ued the pat­tern set by Louis. Indeed, the store has always been a fam­i­ly enter­prise. Four gen­er­a­tions of Zabars have par­tic­i­pat­ed. At the time of this writ­ing, Saul, nine­ty-three, and Stan­ley, eighty-nine, are still in the store every day, as are their grandchildren.

Zabar’s offers a detailed and fas­ci­nat­ing look at how the store pur­sues per­fec­tion in all its prod­ucts even as it expands its selec­tion. Now known for its cof­fee and house­hold sup­plies as well as its del­i­catessen, Zabar’s ships around the coun­try and is a must ‑stop for food-lov­ing vis­i­tors in New York City.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions