Wise Sons, the Jewish deli pop-up from Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman, debuted last Saturday at Jackie's Vinoteca, part of Off the Grid: McCoppin Hub. Though they're both from Southern California, Bloom and Beckerman met as undergrads at U.C. Berkeley, then veered off into different career paths, Bloom in local construction management, Beckerman at a D.C. nonprofit. SFoodie caught up with them this week after their Wise Sons launch with one big question on our mind: Is San Francisco ready for a Jewish deli?
SFoodie: What inspired you to open a deli?
Beckerman: We started making meals for our friends in college at the Berkeley Hillel House, beginning with a kosher Southern barbecue dinner for 250 people, then Chinese, then Creole. We knew that we loved to cook and we were more excited about these meals than classes.
Bloom: We couldn't get good pastrami up here so we looked to make our own ... but a recipe for pastrami really doesn't exist.
Beckerman: So we started tinkering around on our own and trying to create a pastrami. Slowly we went from, "This isn't so bad," to, "Hey, this tastes like pastrami!" We test-drove it one night on my family in L.A. and it was gone the next day: They had picked away at it, and I woke up to my uncle using the last scraps to make pastrami and eggs. We knew that we were on to something.
Bloom: Yeah, that's when I first thought to myself, "This is real, this is happening." At around the same time, I volunteered to help with the physical layout of the first La Cocina street-food festival and became friends with [executive director] Caleb Zigas and started discussing business ideas with him ― we would be six months to a year behind without La Cocina. Caleb helped us develop a business plan, even providing templates on which to write it. We owe everything to La Cocina ... we consult with them so much still. I also spent a lot of time recently in New York, just eating tons of deli at places like Second Avenue Deli and Barney Greengrass. I hung out for hours with Noah Berminoff at Mile End and so many of the things he said that they do were in line with our ideas. It made us feel more comfortable with what we were trying to do.
Jewish deli has been a tough sell in San Francisco, with both the California Street Deli (in the JCC) and SF New York Deli (in the Embarcadero) opening and folding quickly within the past 5 years. What will be different about Wise Sons? Are you afraid?
Beckerman: We better be afraid! We think that image and location will be key. Truthfully, we can't only cater to the Jewish community. We need to make food that's ethnic but that's for everyone. You don't have to be Chinese to like Chinese food.
Bloom: We understand that we're considerably green in the restaurant business and that it's so labor intensive. We plan to keep our menu very small and keep things seasonal when possible. Did you notice that we didn't have tomatoes on our bialys with lox last Saturday? Also, we'll always have the two or three basics that every deli must have on the menu, like a pastrami sandwich and matzah ball soup.
How did you come up with the name?
Beckerman: Caleb Zigas' dad came up with it. He was coming up with a bunch of funny names, like "Not Zabars But Close," and then he came up with "Wise Sons." We ran out and ordered business cards that night. Other names that we considered were "Schmendriks," "Nudniks," "Treyf," "Doctors and Lawyers," because that's what our parents wanted us to be, and "Three Opinions," because it seemed like we had a third opinion on every decision that we made.
What was your biggest surprise on your opening day as a pop-up?
Bloom: Friends came and they brought friends, many who were trying things like blintzes for the very first time, and they loved it.
Beckerman: The community support was unbelievable, both in front of and behind the counter. We had a family of four who we didn't know, with young kids, waiting out front ten minutes before we started service.
Where do you see yourselves in a year?
Beckerman: We're currently seriously looking at spaces, so we hope to be a brick-and-mortar operation in the Mission with maybe 30 seats. We want to cater your bris and your funeral and everything in between. Our restaurant will be lean, fast and casual, the kind where you take a number and then have a seat at the counter.
Bloom: We also hope to be a space where the community can put on events. And on nights when we're closed, we definitely would want a La Cocina type of business using our space. I love the idea of someone using the kitchen of a Jewish deli to make empanadas or pupusas on Mondays.