TORONTO — At 87 years old, Herman Perl is glad to be back in business.
The founder and president of Perl’s Fine Foods has begun manufacturing his products again for the first time since a fire destroyed his Bathurst Street store in 2006.
At his current factory on Densley Avenue, near Keele Street and Lawrence Avenue, Perl will manufacture and supply retailers with such Perl’s favourites as salami, hot dogs, smoked turkey breast and drumsticks, as well as chicken and turkey deli slices.
Perl, a father of six, grandfather of 26 and great-grandfather of 20, said in an interview that for now, he won’t produce the cooked foods that had become a staple at his store.
With 60 people working at Perl’s before the fire, including 25 in the kitchen, the outlet, which opened on Bathurst just south of Lawrence in the early 1960s, had grown to become a community institution.
For Passover, for example, it sold about 5,500 pounds of gefilte fish and 4,700 pounds of chopped liver.
“We sold 50 gallons of chicken soup a day, five days a week, all year long,” he said.
A Holocaust survivor from Romania, Perl was studying in Hungary when the war broke out and he was sent to Shachendorf concentration camp. He lost all his siblings and his step-mother in the Holocaust.
After the war, he went to Belgium, where he trained as a textile engineer.
“When I came to Toronto, my first job was [as] a textile engineer, and I made good money, about double what a weaver made, but my boss, a German Jew, said I had to work on Shabbat,” Perl said.
“He tried to [compromise] by letting me work half a day, but I walked away.”
Someone suggested that he open a butcher shop, “and even though I knew nothing about meat, I did. When one of my first customers wanted some middle chuck, I showed her a poster of a cow and asked her to point it out.”
He opened his first store three weeks before Passover on Bloor Street in 1953, he said, and once, shortly after it opened, when he was too busy to deliver an order by car before yom tov, he walked with 75 pounds of meat from Bloor Street to Wilson Avenue.
The store became his life, he said.
“I would wake up at 4 a.m. and go to work, and sometimes I slept there. I learned everything on the job.”
Customer service was first for him, Perl said.
“I helped a lot of poor people by giving them meat or giving them a discount. I saw one customer shoplifting, and I said nothing, because I knew she didn’t have money to feed her family.”
Two years ago, Perl was honoured by Premier Dalton McGuinty and the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem as one of a number of Holocaust survivors who have made contributions to their communities and Ontario.
Looking back, he said he thanks his former boss for letting him walk away.