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.