The Pandemic Might Stop a Lot of Things, but It's Not Going to Stop the Pastrami
Dingfelder's was about to break even when Covid stripped the restaurant industry bare. Ironically, it may have only made the deli stronger.
Hey everyone! Purim sameach!
Oh, and happy Coronaversary. It was exactly one Jewish year ago that this pandemic started to hit us in Seattle, remember? One by one, our Purim parties were canceled. We called off our seudah at the last moment. It’s like Purim never really ended. We got stuck in the upside down.
So much for 14 days to flatten the curve, right?
In other news, I’m thrilled to say that The Cholent is getting great feedback, and I’d like to take a sec and say hello and welcome to new subscribers! I would love to hear more from everyone about what you are interested in, what concerns you, what you want to see from the Jewish community and from this little newsletter. My hope is that this will be a more open place that can tap into the Jewish traditions of arguing for the sake of heaven — a much needed style of relating to one another that our community and country desperately need to restore.
Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment in the non-toxic comment zone.
Brief reflections before I bring on the main act, Vance Dingfelder, of Dingfelder’s Delicatessen. I reached out to Vance because I wanted to get away from angst and politics for one week and just talk about food. But talking about food in the sunset of a pandemic is not like talking about food in normal times. Everything’s a struggle. Whether you’re trying to keep a restaurant’s lights on or you’re cooking to mitigate some experience of sorrow or loneliness, food has certainly taken on new meaning. Remember banana bread? That obsession from last spring that bled into the sourdough craze and then the whipped coffee frenzy and then just bottles upon bottles of wine…oh wait, was that just me?
Anyway, here is a picture of my hamantaschen. It’s a Smitten Kitchen recipe with classic apricot jam filling instead of called-for rhubarb, because in my opinion apricot is the only filling outside of lekvar. I make them ugly on purpose so everyone, you know, can feel better about theirs.
For a Sephardic Purim take, check out my daughter’s Fulares cooking video on YouTube!
The Pandemic Might Stop a Lot of Things, but It's Not Going to Stop the Pastrami
Vance Dingfelder is the owner and operator of Nourish Catering and Dingfelder’s Delicatessen on Capitol Hill.
The Cholent: I didn’t realize you’d grown up in the restaurant industry in New York. What was that like?
Vance Dingfelder: Initially it was a luncheonette-ice cream parlor. People still talk about it. If you talk to New Yorkers who are older and you mention Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor, they’ll know it. The thing they’ll say is, “the kitchen sink.” They had this big, giant sundae that was a silver sterling punch bowl that had all the flavors of ice cream and all the toppings. It was meant to serve six to eight people and it could feed 12 people. It was on fire. It had these sugar cubes soaked in orange extract, and you lit them on fire. It was this event. You brought it to the table and you set it down. It was a thing. That doesn’t exist anymore.
I’m sorry I missed out on that!
And we had great food, also. Our burgers were the best burgers around. They were literally the best burger around. They were a smash burger, but not a smash burger. When I was a little kid I used to make the hamburgers out of the ground beef.
You eventually ended up with your own catering company out here in Seattle, Nourish Catering. How did that come to be?
I came to Seattle in 1992. And there was no Jewish food in this town in 1992. I couldn’t get whitefish. It really bothered me that I couldn’t get whitefish. ‘Cause I love whitefish. There were no bagels to speak of. And there was no bread. It was flipping me out that I couldn’t get bread here. I found whitefish at Uwajimaya in 1997. It took me five years. And it was frozen. But I still bought it.
Temple De Hirsch Sinai does Shabbat in the Park in July at Luther Burbank Park. So one of the rabbis comes up to me and goes, “Pip and Miriam [Meyerson, of Motza Momma’s], they’re slowing down; you should think about being the temple caterer. I looked at him and said, “If God wants me to be the temple caterer, God’ll make me the temple caterer.”
“If God wants me to be the temple caterer, God’ll make me the temple caterer.”
I’m leaving a piece out. Temple De Hirsch has this thing called Deli Night. Temple used to have a fundraiser option, and around 1999, we go, and we can’t bid on anything. It’s all too much. There was wild stuff, like initial Starbucks stock, Tully’s stock. The real machers were there, and they were the old guys and girls. They did some wild things. [My wife and I] were looking at each other and said, “Can you believe what’s going on here?” We couldn’t really participate. I said to [executive director] Larry Broder, “Why don’t we do something for regular people. Let’s do ‘deli night.’ I’ll cook it. We’ll have pastrami and corned beef and knishes and egg creams and cheesecake.” We ordered it from Carnegie. We got rye bread from Albertson’s on Mercer Island. We got a magician. Larry did some shtick with the microphone. And we had 80 people show up to Deli Night. I think we charged them something like seventy-five dollars to raise money for temple.
It became a thing the synagogue did to raise money. It didn’t make a ton of money, but it was a community event that the synagogue did that people looked forward to. We started hiring top-talent comedians, flew them in, and we spent money on the event and it became a thing every year.
So I started Nourish Catering in the temple’s Bellevue kitchen in 2013. That prompted people to tell me — at a break the fast at my house, in probably 2015 — a good friend [Michelle Sloan, z”l] said to me, “You gotta open a delicatessen in this town.” I said to her, “There’s no way. I don’t have the money.” She said, “There are people in this room that would back you in a second.”
Anyway, Nourish Catering is thriving through temple, and I built this big catering business out of the temple kitchen. I was running a catering company out of the temple kitchen! They wanted the kitchen back. It was a good lesson for me. So I have to find a place now to move Nourish Catering to. Michelle’s like, you gotta open a deli, you gotta open a deli, you gotta open a deli.
I had become friends with all these people through JDS. All our kids went to school together. I went and found a location and they helped me build a kitchen.
I didn’t realize this was such a community project.
Nobody has really heard all this stuff. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a blessing that they helped me. They wanted to see me succeed. It was only by the grace of God. If you really think about this whole thing, I really feel like God’s taken my hand and led me along this way.
For all the things that have transpired that have been able to make this work.
Before the pandemic?
Yes. But wait. The pandemic is probably the reason I am going to succeed and build a legacy. I don’t know what was going to happen if the pandemic didn’t happen, because it was the second year Dingfelder’s was in business. We were struggling. Struggling. Before the pandemic, we were poised, and it was ironic, because March was our break-even for Nourish and Dingfelder’s combined.
I had plans with the City of Seattle to build a delicatessen. The plans got permitted in January 2018. We moved in May 1, 2018. We didn’t have two pennies to put together. I thought, let’s open a window and do Dingfelder’s out a window. All we need to do is get a Dutch door. Well, guess what. Someone donated me a door from a house in Laurelhurst, and my friend installed it. We made a menu and it was the stuff from the kiddushes I did. I added the pastrami and corned beef.
It was ridiculous when I look back and think about how we did it. We didn’t open a giant deli. The original menu had eight sandwiches and soups. My soup menu was inspired by a soup menu from a place called The Kiev. It was in the East Village and it was open 24 hours a day. It was kind of a Romanian dairy kind of restaurant. You could get pea soup on Monday night with two fresh slices of challah with a shmear of butter between them for five bucks. Their soup and challah was over-the-top to die for. Their pierogies were insane also. My soup menu was mirrored off of that place.
So anyway, we open Labor Day of 2018. And with not a penny. We’re in debt. And the overhead for the business; we were losing money. A lot of money. And we ran out of money a few times. That winter was tough. But the whole thing was to get to March. Because we had March booked out and Dingfelder’s was starting to cover a little bit of what it needed to. It was becoming more popular. The whole goal was to get to Passover, because Passover was always a big deal. We used to do all the seders, 1,200 people. To get to April, that was going to be the breakout month where we became profitable.
But as the pandemic started, I was watching it. What was bizarre was the trucks spraying the city. And I was thinking, “This is not good.” When we got the first case, it was around the end of January, and through February, we were working.
We were building it slowly. If you remember Goldberg’s, the biggest mistake was that they opened too soon. They weren’t prepared to handle the demands of the Jewish community. And they’re very demanding. We were booked solid for March. Bar mitzvahs every weekend, March is gonna look good, April we’re booked solid. This is our year! Nourish was the main business. Dingfelder’s was the side business.
So what was the key moment this past year when you realized what you were dealing with?
That second week of March I had $60,000 of events cancelled for Nourish.
What were you thinking in that moment?
I immediately thought to reach out to the Small Business Administration. There was a woman there who said there are going to be programs for small businesses. I signed up for it. I also applied for an economic injury disaster loan. The PPP didn’t come until May. Nourish essentially closed. All the events that I had booked for the entire year, as things closed, people kept moving them.
We went back to what we originally opened with. We had the experience of operating that way. So we were able to pivot quickly.
Because of the pandemic, people didn’t make seders. They had little seders at home with themselves. I put out a Passover menu that people can order from a la carte. We sold seder plates and it was a huge success. It was nuts. I use all kosher-for-Passover stuff, so you have get all the food before Passover. I had to go to all of the grocery stores in this city who didn’t sell what they thought they would sell because people didn’t do big meals. So I bought all their meat! People were ordering and ordering. Where am I going to get the meat? So I found the meat.
Passover, just as I thought it was going to break us out without the pandemic, it broke us out with the pandemic. Because people were home and were coming and buying more. I created the Grandma on the Go menu, which was a result of the pandemic. And I delivered family meals to the Eastside for orders over $50, and we pushed everything to the window, no one inside, and curbside delivery, and contact-less payment.
Passover, just as I thought it was going to break us out without the pandemic, it broke us out with the pandemic.
Nourish is closed, we were about to run out of money. PPP came. I negotiated with my landlord in February that my rent would be a percentage of my sales and the difference would accrue, and we would pay whatever the difference was through 2023. That’s the Uwajimaya family.
Back to the whitefish! Full circle.
Haha! The support we receive through the neighborhood and the community was overwhelming. I think Passover was the breakout. We did High Holy Days. Then Hanukkah happened.
So what’s next?
I’ve got to go make cholent and hamantaschen. Cholent is something I’ve been wanting to do for a month now. My goal is that I should be able to make a gravy and not have to season it, to take everything from the pan and make the gravy by blending it. But there’s too much fat. So I would skim off the fat and save it and use it for the corned beef and pastrami hash. I save the brisket fat. And I took beef cheeks and I sous vide them in the fat from my brisket. I’m using the beef cheeks to make the cholent. It’s gonna be stupid! It might be terrible. I’ll let you know.
And what about the actual future, the big picture?
So here’s what I’m doing. I need to build out a hot line. That will enable me to open for breakfast. I want to do hot dogs, I want to do grilled sandwiches, french fries. We’re also baking. I want to do the bakery more. I want to see our rye bread. I’m going to make a better babka than NY. My babka is going to be the shit. My cheesecake is already the shit. And then I was to do Sephardic stuff. I want to do boyos.
I don’t know if you know, I’m an Ashkefard. My quejado is really good. My grandmother was the best cook in the shul. I came from a family where the women were phenomenal cooks. I love to cook with old Sephardic women. There’s nothing better in the world.
I love to cook with old Sephardic women. There’s nothing better in the world.
I feel like I want to leave a legacy for my family to be proud of. I would like Dingfelder’s to be here for generations. I want to build out the delicatessen. And I want to buy the building and take over the space next door, and that will be the restaurant. You don’t have to write all this.
Oh, I’m writing it.
Haha! It’s not easy to do what we do. Because Jews know good food. You gotta do it right.
My vision is an Eataly for Jews. I think what Russ and Daughters does is phenomenal. We have the same fish that they have. I bet my smoked salmon is better than anybody else’s. Period. So I see things as evolving, and I see us doing more artisan-style Jew food. We’ll have herring, olives, maybe even caviar. I want to make my own halva. So little by little, all these things that you love that comfort you that bring you back to a time when you were younger: a delicatessen, the meaning of the word itself, is “delicacy.” But what are delicacies? Our families, our grandma. They loved you with food. That’s what we try to do.
The secret ingredient is just that. It’s love. The people at Dingfelder’s, they know that. We talk about it all the time, putting, consciously, love into what we’re doing so it translates to the people who are eating it. I think that makes the difference. Let us love you from the inside out.
Check out the Seattle Jewish community calendar.
This week’s parasha is Tetzaveh. High-stakes fashion design for the priests. Sacrifices get real.
Candlelighting is at 5:32 p.m.
A shoutout and much respect to Shlomo Hillel who spearheaded mass aliya of 120,000 Iraqi Jews. Deep sadness at the recent loss of such a great man. May his memory be a blessing. —Rachel Román