April 18, 1988 | Vintage Insatiable

Zabar's: Valhalla á la Murray Klein

 
 Caviar Warrior Murray Klein with Zabar’s troops, Kenny Sez (R), Sam Cohen (L)

        "You should see the people of the neighborhood bring in their friends to show them Zabar's," says Murray Klein. "They have such pride. I wish I felt pride, too. We got 200 people working here and 25,000 customers a week. Everybody is my boss. I should be happy but I'm not."

        It's a little after six on a Sunday morning, and Klein is already at Zabar's, the nosher's Valhalla that continues to gobble up real estate on upper Broadway. He has been running the store for 45 years, and he admits he's tired. "I'm trying to retire a little, to come in at eight instead of six. But I wake up at five anyway. I'm too impatient to read or watch TV. I'm thinking of all the disasters that could be happening. I have no hobbies. I need Zabar's more than Zabar's needs me."

        Klein's second, Harvey Perlman, is at his command post, south of bagels, checking advance orders. Nacho, wielding the feather duster, is restocking oils and vinegars on shelves ravaged by Saturday's relentless hungry.

        The round white display islands with their primitive hand-lettered signs -- SUPERSALE and SUPERSPECIAL -- are particularly forlorn. "It's a gimmick," Klein confides. "On the shelf, it's the same price, but from the display they can't resist. This way, they buy whether they want it or not. At the right price, I can sell anything."

        The door buzzer rasps with each delivery. Rye bread still warm. Scones. Pumpernickel and Swiss country rounds. "The bread's good today," the delivery man from Spiekermann's says proudly, "Heavy." He tosses loaves two at a time to Junior, behind the counter. In the bakery, off the cheese zone, Juana is proofing the croissants. Juana is a saint in Klein's book, always on time, never so inconsiderate as to get sick on Saturday or Sunday, Zabar's hysteria days. "Soon as she starts baking, the perfume will drive the customers crazy," Klein promises. "They won't know what to buy first."
Normally, Klein tackles the shelf refills himself. Today, he's too excited about the eggs, this latest distress deal. Whatever Perugina couldn't sell in time for Easter, they shipped to Zabar's yesterday at a discount so steep he can't mention it.

        "They'd kill me if I told." Five-ounce milk-chocolate eggs, all dressed up in foil and bows, $9.98 each all over town…exclusive at Zaabr's, "only $3.98." Four hundred fifty boxes of a dozen -- 5,400 eggs -- arrived yesterday. He's got just six days to get rid of them. What a challenge. "They'll buy them. You'll see how fast they go," he vows.

        At seven, the first of the crew who tend the fish-and-appetizing counter arrive. Harold Horowitz, commissary of meats, restocks salamis and pickles. "Now comes the good bread -- Eli's," says Klein, breaking off a piece for himself. Eli Zabar is the clan maverick, a defector to the East Side. Zabar's sells Eli's skinny sourdough ficelle for 50 cents less that Eli does. David, from the soup kitchen at the church around the corner, comes by to pick up coffee and leftover bread. Nevin straightens the coffee depot. There are 69 60-pound sacks of coffee beans in the storeroom. "They'll all be gone by tonight," Klein predicts -- the conclusion of another Sunday that grosses over $100,000.

        A woman knocks on the window. "We don't open till nine," says Klein.        Her face knots in agony. "I only need a few bagels; my brother…here from the hospital."

        Klein sighs. "It's always a funeral, or they drove all the way from New Jersey." He lets her in.

        "What a mitzvah," she cries. "What a blessing." She runs to a shopping cart marked YESTERDAY'S BREAD. Oh, no. "There are no bagels."

        Klein bags six fresh bagels for her. "Just give me a dollar," he says. Yesterday's bagel price. He rings up a dollar at 8:11. "First sale of the day."

        Joggers with thousands of calories expended, moms with strollers, and hangover sufferers in sunglasses race up, stunned to discover the door won't open till nine. Cognoscenti who ordered ahead are privileged. A man picks up $485 worth of goodies. A woman collects two shopping bags of balm for mourners.

        "Look at them loitering out there," Klein says triumphantly as people fidget on the sidewalk. "Oh-oh."

        A frazzled blonde in white tights knocks on the window and tilts her head plaintively. "I've come all the way from the Lower East Side. I promised my family. Please don't make me go to Barney Greengrass."

        The magic words. She's in. Klein dispatches clerks to get her bagels -- "two sesame, two onion, two poppy-seed, half a pound of Nova, some bialys." "What, no cream cheese?" he cries. Okay. Half a pound plain, half a pound with scallions. And a rye, sliced. A pound of coffee. He grinds it himself. Without moving, she's spent $35.69. "If I walked around, I could find ten more things," she says.

        Klein gives her rugalach. "I can't resist a blonde," he tells her. "If anyone asks, say you placed your order yesterday."

        More staff members sound the buzzer. "God morning, amor," says one beautiful young girl. Klein smiles. "Did you hear what she said?" He greets Louis Pilozo, the housewares manager. "He started in garbage. So did his brother. Now his father's in garbage -- he doesn't speak English. We have brothers and cousins. I love having the whole family," says Klein, who lost his own family in Nazi death camps.

        The crowd outside is growing. Zabar's regular panhandler has arrived, and a gray-haired man in a red cap is tap-dancing. "Are you ready Harvey?" Klein asks at 8:50. Harvey asks for five minutes more.

        "Okay, Harold?" Harvey calls out. Then: "Okay, man your battle stations." Forty bodies tense. Murray Klein strides to the door with a small smile. The crowd, mostly men, spills inside. A few dart to the appetizing counter, scrambling for a number, determined, focused, not even breaking stride to grab a basket. Others stroll in slowly, ready to browse. "Only 29 ahead of me," one man observes happily, rushing off to grab what he can before his number is called.

        And even as the runners break, a voice over the loudspeaker greets them, pushing Scotch salmon, "our new tofu spread with scallion and garlic," and "a fabulous buy on Perugina chocolate Easter eggs, beautifully wrapped, selling everywhere for $9.98, now only $3.98…good for Passover, too."

        Juana walks by, whistling, with a tray of pain au chocolat hot from her oven. Klein sends Junior for a break -- two breaks and twenty minutes for lunch are on Zabar's, food included. "So they don't have to steal," says Klein. "Harvey, tell them again about the eggs," Perlman grabs a mike. "We got 10,000 eggs. It's a one-shot deal," he cries. "Make me a happy man."

        Sammy Cohen, patriarch of the fish department, arrives at 9:20. Not bad, considering he's 70 and worked until midnight last night. "He'll tell you he's 65," Klein warns. Klein himself turned 65 the day before. "So hard to believe," he says. A frail old woman grabs his arm. "They won't sell me knishes," she complains.

        "How's that tofu with scallions?" a customer asks Sammy. The fish man shakes his head. "I wouldn't know. You'll have to taste it and tell me." "Do you need any pickled herring?" he asks another customer. Someone wants pickled eel. "Is this small enough?" he asks.

        "You're not buying an egg," Klein chides a customer.

        "It's too rich," the man says.

        "So give it to someone you don't like."

        Soon, every other shopper is clutching a silver-foiled egg or two or even three. "You only have two," Klein cries. "Take one more." A man takes two eggs, steps back, then returns one. "Don't do that," Klein snaps. "You got to take two. Take three. You can return one to Bloomingdale's and get back $6. You make a profit on this deal.
He can't help smiling. "Look at them. They're buying eggs."

        On the sidewalk in front, a street peddler is selling the gleanings of neighborhood trash cans. Inspired, Perlman decides to dispatch a clerk to peddle the eggs outdoors. Klein is beside himself with joy.

        "It's not the money," he says. "It's the thing I do. Who else can do it? If they got a really big deal, they come to Zabar's." Like last December. He bought thousands of chocolate Santas. He's still selling Santas this Sunday, 69 cents each. Isn't spring a little late for Santa? "The chocolate hasn't spoiled," says Klein.

        Saturday and Sunday, Zabar's exuberant shoppers take home 100 dozen eggs, more or less (Klein has been known to exaggerate). He has 4,200 eggs to go.

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