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‘The Deli’ – your local Swiss army knife

Deli owner Marcy Schreiber multi-tasking at the checkout standIt is said that the kitchen is the heart of the home, and that may be especially true in a Jewish home, where so many rituals and observances revolve around special meals.

If the kitchen is the heart of the home, then it can be argued that the East Side Kosher Deli (“the Deli”) is the heart of the Denver Jewish community.

From this busy building at 499 S. Elm St. in Glendale, thousands of Jewish mouths are fed, with ingredients purchased from  the Deli, prepared take-out meals, repasts in the Deli’s restaurant or meetings and celebrations in the banquet rooms, all under the watchful eye of the of “chief cook and bottle washers” Michael and Marcy Schreiber.

The Schreibers’ and the Deli’s identities are intertwined. The role the Deli plays in the life Denver’s Jewish community is in no small part due to its owners’ long hours and sense of responsibility. Their imprint is seen, felt — and tasted — in every aspect of this institution.

The Schreibers assumed their position quite by accident. Their ownership of the community’s main source of kosher food is a culmination of the couple’s Jewish journey pursued together most of their adult lives.

Both Michael and Marcy are Denver natives with strong community roots.

Marcy, daughter of the late Dr. Harold and Rosalie Fishman, comes from a longtime Denver family. She is proud that four generations of her family, including herself, appear in photographs on the BMH-BJ confirmation wall.  Three of four sets of her great-grandparents, plus a great-great-grandfather, are buried in Denver. That’s a pioneer family!

Michael, the son of Gert and the late Max Schreiber, grew up at Beth Joseph.

Michael went to CU, where he studied to be a research biologist, and Marcy received an education degree from Northwestern University.

After college, Michael was a buyer for Dave Cook Sporting Goods, working alongside Paul Fass, Marcy Fishman’s cousin who came to live with her parents after his own parents had died.

Michael Schreiber spent a lot of time at the Fishman home with his friend Paul while Marcy was away at Northwestern. He often noticed the photo of Marcy in her parent’s house, and at the same time, Dr. Fishman was mentioning to his daughter that there was someone hanging around the house she might like to meet.

When Marcy came home from college, the two did meet. They were engaged in 1972 and married in 1973.

The pair embarked on what would become quite a journey, professionally and spiritually.

?Marcy put her education background to work, particularly in early childhood education, serving as director of the Temple Emanuel and Temple Sinai preschools. She was program director at BMH in the early 1980s, and has continuously tutored Bar and Bat Mitzvah students.

Michael worked in wholesale and retail before going to work in the Jewish community. He was the executive director of Hillel Academy six years before becoming program director of the now-defunct TRI synagogue and outreach center.

During this time, the Schreibers were growing in their Jewish observance. Both had grown up traditional — somewhere between Conservative and Orthodox.

Early in their marriage, Marcy’s father Dr. Harold Fishman was attending a class taught by Rabbi Stanley Wagner at BMH. He invited his son-in-law Michael to go to the class with him. At that point Michael says his “pilot light” of Judaism ignited into a bigger flame that has since continued to grow.

Marcy, in the early 1980s, experienced adult Jewish learning for the first time. “It was a real eye opener — adults learning Judaism. We never knew about that before.”  Those experiences, along with the couple’s first trip to Israel on their 10th wedding anniversary, set them on a path of increased Jewish learning, observance and spirituality.

They sent their three children to Hillel Academy, Yeshiva Toras Chaim and Beth Jacob High School for Girls, and continued to grow and learn along with — and from — their children.

Marcy and Michael’s son Sholom, is married to Yehudis Brocho with four children and studies full time in Lakewood, NJ. No matter how busy he is, Michael takes time every day to study with Sholom by phone.

The Schreibers also have twin daughters:  Genny Lifshitz, married to Oren and the mother of three, is a reading specialist also in Lakewood, NJ. Alana is a speech therapist living in Brooklyn.

Just after leaving his position at TRI, Michael was in the process of “regrouping” when he received what then seemed like the strangest phone call.

It was the Thursday night before Labor Day weekend, 1996. A business friend in Minnesota called with the news that the East Side Kosher Deli was in receivership. The friend was the Deli’s largest creditor, but had no interest in owning it. The friend, however, did think the Schreibers might want to take it over.

The Schreibers — who had no experience in running a restaurant or food store — initially balked. The friend used a little Jewish guilt on them: “What’s Denver going to do if we have to close the Deli’s doors?” he asked.

Something about that admonition clicked with the Schreibers, and right after Shabbos that weekend they found themselves spreading the books of the East Side Kosher Deli to determine its viability. Two days later, on Labor Day Monday, Michael was unloading his first truck of merchandise, and on Tuesday, the East Side Kosher Deli reopened for business under the ownership of Michael and Marcy Schreiber.

The East Side Kosher Deli was founded by former Denverite Ed Korlansik. Its first location was next to Pete’s Fruits & Vegetables at Cedar and Holly. It was strictly a deli counter with a few groceries and a couple of tables.

Korlansik sold the Deli to Mel and Irma Weiss, who eventually moved their business to larger quarters at Leetsdale Dr. and Hudson St.

That’s where it was when the Schreibers bought it and took it over in 1996. That 4,500-square-foot location on Leetsdale — a big improvement from the previous Holly and Cedar space — was not large enough for the multi-tasking Schreibers, who wanted the Deli to be much more than just a deli counter.

The Schreibers expanded the sit-down restaurant within the Deli, but the tables were squeezed in between grocery shelves.

And when it came time for Passover, Michael Schreiber rented an off-premise space to sell his large inventory of seasonal merchandise.

The Schreibers grew the business until every square inch of the Leetsdale store was being used. To prevent business from stagnating due to lack of space, they knew, in the back of their minds, they needed move to a larger and more suitable store.

That thought moved to the front of their minds when their landlord informed them the building on Leetsdale was being sold, and they had one year to find a new place. This gave them the impetus to move ahead with their dream of a glatt kosher “supercenter” for the Denver Jewish community.

That dream came true with their acquisition of a prime piece of property — the former Mavericks, St. Petersburg and Tommy Wongs Island restaurants — at the corner of Virginia Ave. and Elm St. in Glendale.

At that point Marcy — who had stayed in her position as Temple Sinai preschool director — joined Michael in the Deli full time.

Deli owner Michael Schreiber talks with a customer while stocking Passover goodsThe Schreibers redesigned their new building into a 24,000-square-foot, “Swiss army knife” facility, performing many different functions, usually all at the same time. The Deli, which is under the supervision of the Vaad Hakashrus of Denver, includes:

• the deli line;
• a full-service, sit-down meat and pareve restaurant;
• a bakery;
• grocery store, which includes fresh produce and non-food items for entertaining;
• fresh and frozen meat market;
• banquet rooms;  and
• a seasonal Passover store and a dedicated Passover kitchen.

The Schreibers employ a staff of 23, and they feel they’ve assembled outstanding managers for their various departments. They are particularly proud of their chef Paula Knutston and pastry chef Toby Rains Barger.

Along with Chef Knutson, they have created a varied menu for the restaurant, offering everything from traditional Jewish to American to Italian to Mexican dishes.

Their signature dish? Michael says it’s not the matzah balls and not brisket, but fajitas!

On December 25 every year, when virtually everything else is closed, the Deli is open, and offers its annual Kosher Chinese buffet.

Michael and Marcy figure they carry nearly 5,000 items in their store, with another 2,000 products at Passover time.

They enjoy going to the annual Kosherfest trade show in New Jersey to discover what’s new in the kosher marketplace. This year it’s kosher-for-Passover Chinese noodles and “soy sauce,” according to Michael.

Michael Schreiber believes that the one-stop shopping concept is a major reason for the Deli’s success, since the move to its current location. “Look at the history of the stand-alone kosher restaurant or stores in Denver,” he points out. While there have been several valiant attempts at kosher restaurants and markets in Denver, the East Side Kosher Deli has survived them all.

On the East and West coasts, stand-alone kosher businesses can thrive, but the Schreibers have devised a business model for the marketplace here. Each department at the Deli brings in revenue at a different pace, each covering the others during fluctuations in business traffic. 

The Deli has become a social institution in the Denver Jewish community. The Deli’s banquets rooms are in regular use with meetings, classes and social events. It’s popular for sheva brachos and other family celebrations such as birthdays and anniversaries, as well as mah jongg games.

The restaurant, besides providing kosher families the chance to eat out in Denver, is also a formal and informal meeting place. Despite the one-way glass installed to provide privacy in the restaurant, one often sees people poking their heads around the petition to check out who’s there.

The Deli is often the venue for Jewish institutions in the community to woo potential employees. For the Orthodox Jewish schools and outreach programs, which often recruit educators from the larger cities in the East, the Deli is a selling point. These families can see — and taste — firsthand that Denver does offer kosher amenities in a clean, friendly, modern facility, no less.

The Deli’s reach goes beyond its walls. Almost weekly, people order trays and meals for shiva homes, those who are ill and those who are celebrating. The East Side Kosher Deli provides kosher meals for Rose Medical Center and St. Joseph Hospital.

Marcy says they work with many local and regional hotels to provide kosher meals for guests at functions. “We try to match the menus” of the non-kosher events, she says.

Every year, the Deli prepares hundreds of meals for kids on youth group buses on tours across the Rocky Mountain West.

An unlikely — yet large — destination of the Deli’s food is the prison system. In fact, Marcy is the kosher instructor to the national organization of prison chaplains.

The East Side Kosher Deli also ships meat to kosher meat coops in eight states in the Rocky Mountain region.

Feeling overwhelmed by Passover preparations at your house? You know . . . emptying and cleaning your cupboards, changing out your dishes, thoroughly cleansing your kitchen and other rooms, and purchasing the special food for Passover.

It may be overwhelming, but nothing compared to what goes on every year at the East Side Kosher Deli.

Most people start their Passover routine right after Purim, about four weeks prior to Passover. For Michael and Marcy Schreiber, Passover begins right after Chanukah when Michael starts ordering Passover merchandise. He has to time his ordering to ensure that delivery is not made until the store is ready. 

For Passover, the grocery store is completely transformed into a Passover store. All the regular chometz merchandise is moved to the largest banquet room toward the rear of the building. It is not just warehoused there; it is shelved and displayed to serve as a temporary grocery store during the weeks just prior to Passover.

All of the regular, chometz frozen food goes into freezers that are kept year round in the Schreibers’ garage and brought to the Deli for Passover. They, too, are placed in the “chometz store.”

The shelves and display units in the grocery store are then thoroughly cleaned and lined with new paper, ready for stocking the Deli’s Passover products.

In the meantime, nestled in the Deli’s large basement is a Passover kitchen, which gets re-kashered for Passover every year.  In this kitchen, the Deli’s cooks make kosher-for-Passover soups, entrees and side dishes, packaged as three-course meals, and sold in the Deli’s Passover freezer cases.

These Passover meals also go to Rose Medical Center, Hillel at CU and DU, the Air Force Academy and other institutions.

After Passover, the whole process is reversed.

The Schreibers used to close the entire Deli during Passover and take a well-earned vacation that week. But in recent years, customer demand for access to Passover groceries compelled them to keep only the Passover grocery department open on the intermediate days of the holiday. Because no food is being prepared that week, it is not crucial that either Michael or Marcy be on the premises full time.

They do manage to get away a few days a year to visit their children and grandchildren on the East Coast and to attend the annual Kosherfest trade show. During that time, they arrange for substitute mashgichim

But while they are “on vacation,” they are not entirely “on vacation.” When they are on the East Coast, be it in New Jersey or New York, they always pick out a kosher grocery store and go on a field trip. They spend several hours going up and down every single aisle of the store to check out the merchandise to see where there is anything they should be ordering for the folks in Denver.

The Schreibers work hard, and they’re the first to admit it. In the weeks and days leading up to Passover, it is not unusual for Michael to arrive at the store before 7 a.m., and not get home until after 11 p.m. 

Both work six days a week and are on their feet most of the time. They eat all their meals at the Deli, except on Shabbos.

The Deli does close early on erev Shabbos — at 2 p.m. on Fridays, but it is not unusual for the Schreibers to face stragglers, and those last-minute, out-of-town visitors who must get something to eat for Shabbos. Marcy said she’s even pulled together entire meals for people who were truly in a bind and would have no other kosher food for Shabbos if she didn’t stay beyond closing time for them.

Her reasoning goes along with her and Michael’s philosophy and their motivation to keep the Deli going: “We feel it’s our responsibility to feed Jews, and we take that responsibility pretty seriously.”

Larry Hankin

IJN Associate Editor | larry@ijn.com

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