A deli's demise: Q&A with Rye Deli owner David Weinstein

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 17, 2014 - 12:36 PM
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A customer orders lunch at the front counter at Rye, a deli in the Lowry Hill neighborhood.

Photo: Bre McGee, Special to the Star Tribune

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When he opened Rye Deli in the fall of 2011, first-time restaurateur David Weinstein promised a different kind of deli. It was fun while it lasted — for this critic, anyway — until the restaurant closed on March 30. A few days later, amid the packing boxes in the dining room of his shuttered Lowry Hill restaurant, Weinstein offered a post-mortem.

A: It was a few factors. We didn’t have a consistent volume of business to justify our overhead. Our business was increasing continuously from the time we opened, but the gap was not bridgeable. And some of the goalposts kept moving. The price of beef kept going up, and we have a beef-heavy menu. Steakhouses can charge $50, but when you call yourself a deli, you can’t increase prices to keep up with increased costs. We have a 6-ounce brisket sandwich for $11, and we couldn’t keep raising the price to keep up with the price of beef.

 

Q: That always felt like a fair value to me. But not to others?

A: Our customers are price-conscious. Our check average is $15, and that kind of volume is hard to do. That led to our conclusion that we couldn’t get where we needed to be, and we decided not to prolong it.

 

Q: From the get-go, you seemed to have difficulties convincing people that Rye was a different kind of deli. Do I have that correct?

A: Many people had a very particular set of expectations. And it wasn’t an issue of quality; it was about different expectations. People would say they wanted a “deli-deli,” or a “real deli,” and they had an obvious image in their head.

No one goes to La Belle Vie and says, “Well, it’s OK, but it’s not the French Laundry,” because it’s not trying to be the French Laundry. But with a deli, there’s always a reference point. When it comes to most restaurants, many people are looking for something new. But when it comes to delis, people crave familiarity; they always want certain things available. They’re looking for nostalgia. Everyone has a different deli memory, and all those memories are competing with one another. We often met those expectations, but there were times when we didn’t, from the moment they walked in the door.

 

Q: So the moral of the story is that no one likes change?

A: People would say, “How can you call yourself a deli when you don’t have … ” and then fill in blank: a tuna melt, tongue, whatever. On the first day, a little old lady came up and told me that the borscht was wrong, that you don’t put carrots in borscht. She didn’t say it was bad; she said it was wrong. [Laughs.]

 

Q: How did you deal, on a personal level, with that kind of reaction?

A: I usually held my tongue, but sometimes it was tempting [laughs]. It was about seeing food from the past vs. tasting something new. I was satisfied with what we created. It met our expectations. We never tried to be a carbon copy of other restaurants, although we drew from examples from other cities. We just wanted to be a good Jewish deli in Minneapolis that did scratch cooking, to fill that need. We also wanted to have a bar that filled a neighborhood need as a gathering place.

 

Q: I ordered that terrific challah French toast so often that the regularly scheduled staffer would take one look at me and say “French toast, right?” During those weekend breakfasts, I always appreciated watching your hands-on approach as a restaurateur. Was it always your plan to be that involved?

A: I enjoyed that a lot. I tried to know how to do every job here; I felt that it was necessary. Ultimately, this is all on my shoulders. It’s obviously a challenge on your time. I usually worked six days a week, and often seven days a week. Even then, restaurants are so all-consuming that it never feels like you’re totally off.

 

Q: You’re a lawyer and also worked in commercial real estate development. Are there any similarities between those vocations and owning a restaurant?

A: It’s probably a comparable level of stress [laughs]. But completely different. I haven’t ever had a boring day here, I can say that. It can be fun and it can be terrifying, but it’s never boring.

 

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m not sure. I’m figuring out the next step for the building.

 

Q: The restaurant’s rocky opening — the word slammed doesn’t even begin to cover it — inspired legions of disappointed customers to turn to social media and let it rip. What was that like?

A: That was hard. It was an emotional roller coaster. Right out of the gate it was incredibly gratifying to see so many people take such an interest in our restaurant, and to see that pent-up demand for this kind of food. That was thrilling. Then the chef’s eyes got as big as dinner plates and he said, “We’re going to run out of food.” We went from euphoria to damage control. People were saying, “How can you run out of corned beef?” When you explain that we’re a scratch kitchen, and that it takes five days to prepare our corned beef, well, that doesn’t work. It was really hard to recover from that. We weren’t prepared for that kind of business.

 

Q: Along with that Yelp Nation avalanche, reviews from several critics could have sent the restaurant to a Level 1 trauma center. How did you react to those criticisms?

A: It was a level of venom that I find surprising. In a perverse way, I guess it shows just how passionate people are when it comes to this kind of food. But what was most gratifying was all the loyalty that our customers showed us. There are a lot of people who loved us, and the outpouring of sadness and support has been gratifying. We became part of people’s lives, and that only makes it more heartbreaking to close. We’re proud of what we accomplished. It’s a hard thing to do, closing the restaurant. We never expected to do it.

 

Q: Any lessons you’d care to share for the next brave soul who gets into the deli business?

A: Obviously, I can’t overstate the importance of having a strong opening. Assume that you’re going to be extremely busy, and be ready for it. Having a great staff is the most important thing. Many on our staff grew into leadership roles, and that was really gratifying. I’m gratified by the sense of community and friendship, and I regret that we’re not going to see that continue.

 

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib

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