MONTREAL — Hy Diamond signed over Schwartz’s to new owners last week, confident that he did all he could to ensure it remains the old-fashioned Jewish-style deli that is known around the world.
Diamond, who bought Schwartz’s Charcuterie Hebraique de Montréal Inc. in 1999, after acting as the accountant for years to its previous owner, always referred to himself as “only its curator” rather than proprietor.
“I built it up into the institution it is today, a part of Quebec known all over the world. When I walked in, it was just going along – going downhill,” he said in an interview.
“I hate like hell to sell it. I really enjoyed it, but I’m not getting younger and my health is not getting better. It was time to pass on the legacy. I’m leaving [Schwartz’s] in good shape.”
After weeks of rumours, Schwartz’s was sold March 5 to the Nakis family and René Angélil, along with his wife Céline Dion and two of his nephews, for a reported sum of almost $10 million.
Diamond is satisfied the 85-year-old little restaurant on the Main is in the hands of Montrealers who recognize the restaurant’s historical and cultural significance and will carry on the tradition. “Hy Diamond has poured his heart and soul into building this business, and not only do we want to thank him for his dedication, but we want him to be proud of our efforts to continue along the same path,” Angélil said in a press release.
“Of course, we’ll make a few improvements as necessary, but we’re not interested in diluting the brand by franchising or making the deli something that it isn’t. It’s truly one of a kind, and we intend to keep it this way.”
“Paul Nakis [the family patriarch] is a friend of mine, a successful restaurateur. René has been coming in here since he was a youngster,” Diamond said.
Angélil noted that his close friend and then-manager of his band, the late Montreal show-business promoter Ben Kaye, first brought him to Schwartz’s in 1961.
“I’ve been going there ever since. I have so many great memories of being there with the guys, and with Céline and our families throughout the years. It’s the most unique restaurant in the world, and we’re thrilled to be part of it.”
The younger partners make it sound like they have been handed a sacred trust, “I am honoured to be able to contribute to one of this city’s greatest legacies,” Anastasia Nakis said in a statement.
“My brother Eric and I are extremely proud to be part of this wonderful heritage,” Martin Sara said. The new owners extol how great the smoked meat is and how well it sells, so it would seem that they won’t change it. They’re not the first non-Jews to own Schwartz’s. Diamond’s predecessor was the legendary “Madame” Armande Chartrand, who inherited it from her friend, Maurice Zbriger in 1981.
Neither was a restaurateur – Zbriger, in fact, was a violinist, composer and conductor – nor did they take an active role in running the place.
Diamond said that when he took it over, Schwartz’s was deteriorating. He put a lot of money into bringing the physical premises up to date without changing the seedy way it had looked for decades. He also hired new staff and improved the food quality, without touching the menu.
He was a hands-on owner. His office was upstairs (he also owned the building) and was in the restaurant nearly every day.
“I had no restaurant experience. I just used common sense, saw what people liked,” he said
Diamond also worked hard on public relations. He nurtured a documentary, a history and a play, Schwartz’s: The Musical , which ran at Centaur Theatre last year and was so popular that its run was extended and it was reprised in the summer.
There were articles published everywhere, even in upscale Gourmet magazine, and Tourism Montreal made Schwartz’s a regular stop for visiting journalists.
He also linked Schwartz’s with a number of charities, including his favourite cause: ovarian cancer research and education, in memory of his wife, Doris.
The Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen was founded by Romanian-Jewish immigrant Reuben Schwartz a few doors away from the current site. The canopy over the entrance says that it was founded in 1930, but the most widely accepted date now is 1928. Eiran Harris, archivist emeritus of the Jewish Public Library, who has eaten at Schwartz’s for 50 years and wrote a history of smoked meat in Montreal, wants to set the record straight.
“The delicatessen – it was not called Schwartz’s then – opened Saturday, Dec. 31, 1927, after sundown, 5-1/2 hours before midnight, to be precise,” he said.
The deli was kosher for its first few years, and stopped being so during the Depression, apparently to cut costs.
As devoted as he is to Schwartz’s fare, Harris contends it has not been a Jewish deli for at least 25 years, ever since Jews ceased to be the majority of its clients.
The turning point, he believes, was when medical warnings about the dangers of eating fat and cholesterol started getting louder and louder. “Jews were prime candidates for cardiovascular disease, and they were greatly influenced by that advice.”
One thing he hopes Angélil et al do not remove is the shmutz that begrimes the smoke room, which, as anyone who saw the musical knows, is Schwartz’s dirty little secret.
Harris attributes the deli’s staying power and international reputation to the food, the colourful waiters, the cosy (read cramped) ambience, and “word of mouth.”
“Water may have dripped on my head from the ceiling, but I never had a bad food experience there,” he said.
“I’ll give the owners the benefit of the doubt for now, but when there are several partners, and all are looking at the bank balance and how to recoup their investment quickly, you can never be certain what they will do.”
And if anyone thinks they would be foolhardy to tamper with a winning formula, Harris only has to mention the fiasco of New Coke.