Not Franz Kafka’s Customer Service*

Posted by jlubans on November 04, 2014

20141104-zabar__s.jpg
Caption: Zabar’s: More New York than Woody Allen.
A week ago, the New York Times ran an illustrated story which reminded me of my book’s chapter on Zabar’s, the famed Manhattan food store at W. 80th and Broadway.
Rachel L. Starnes’ story, “The Deli Business Is Still in His Bones, Two Decades Into Retirement”, is about Harold Horowytz, Zabar’s “retired” deli counter manager. He’s someone I interviewed back in 2001/02.
Reading her story, I had good memories of that interview with Harold – he’s an impressive guy! Some of this blog appears in the book but I’ve added new observations about customer service and included some material I’d previously edited out, including Harold’s earthy language.
“A Zabarian Experience”
The morning after a day with Saul Zabar touring the store from the cheese stored under blue tarps on the rooftop to the subterranean staff break room, I visit with Harold Horowytz. He’s retired, but not really. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s he leaves home (New Bern, North Carolina*) and returns to manage Zabar’s deli counter. He takes over from Frankie Cabrera, the deli manager for the rest of the year. (If there’s any tension between Frankie and Harold, it’s not apparent to me. Saul calls Frankie a “primitive”, meaning I think that Frankie’s a bit feudal - loyal to Saul - and not averse to working with different models of organization; he’s happy to help in any capacity and if that means playing second fiddle part of the year, that’s OK.)
I’ve seen and marveled at the workings of Zabar’s deli and fish counters: customers take a number, wait for the number to come up, and the countermen (no women) prepare individual orders, slicing, weighing, packaging and pricing. The workweek can be from 72 - 84 hours. Harold calls it “a grind”, explaining “it’s a retail business…” Yet, he loves the work: “Zabar’s is a good store, with lots of action”. A friend and New York native once told me: “If major corporations could organize themselves as well as Zabar’s runs its fish department, American business would benefit greatly.” (I agree with her assessment and, when librarians express cluelessness about how Zabar’s deli counter has anything to do with libraries, I have to explain that while we may be not-for-profit we are in the retail business; we have customers to satisfy and products we wish to “sell”. And we have an indirect income stream from those customers: taxes or other budgetary allocations. The last two decades of library success and failure stories confirm for me that those libraries that understand and apply the best retail model will survive and thrive. See below for Harold’s retail “business rules”.)
Harold welcomes me into his “office” - the end of the deli case near shelves filled with knishes and strudels just outside the kitchen. At seventy-three, he looks a healthy 65 underneath his baseball cap.
How does Zabar’s maintain high quality?
When I ask about the consistent high quality, Harold is not the first to tell me about the legendary Mr. Klein, a former partner and operations manager with Saul and Stanley Zabar. Mr. Klein (always Mister) was a stickler for quality. He helped instill high standards, and while he’s been gone several years, his story is the organization’s shorthand for keeping the unstinting quality tradition alive.
Another quality enhancer for Harold: “You buy the best” and freshest products. And, it helps that Boris Bassin, the executive chef, is “fussy”, always checking for quality and freshness. Those 200 deli items behind the glass display cases come from the army of cooks and food preparers that Boris commands.
As we talk, a deliveryman rolls in several boxes of tongue and pastrami from a New York manufacturer. Before signing off on the invoice, Harold checks the shipment, opening each box, rifling through the wrapped tongues and pastramis. Frankie joins him and they feel the tongues (shaped like pink 5-pound sacks of sugar), one by one, holding each in two hands, probing with gentle thumb pressure for consistency and texture. One is undercooked; the others are OK, but not as good as they could be. “This is shit” Harold says to the deliveryman. The deliveryman bears up fairly well under the blunt talk – remember this is NY, a town where car horns serve as trumpets of self expression - then makes excuses about how the ovens were not working like they should. Harold acknowledges the excuse but crosses off the undercooked tongues on the invoice – no sale.
Pastrami is next. Harold scrutinizes each, but spends less time on them, telling me, “It’s hard to kill a pastrami!” Still, you can cheat by adding water. Some manufacturers do pump in water for extra weight, but they don’t get business from Zabar’s.
Harold ends what’s been a quality lesson: “Take your tongue and get your ass out of here”. Harold’s crustiness is well intentioned, half jest, half reprimand. It’s tough talk that makes the point to the young man and to the manufacturer. Afterwards Harold tells me, “Usually this company makes a nice product”.
Why work at Zabar’s?
How well you do at Zabar’s is up to you, Harold assures me. “A lot of people who work here care about what they do, they care about the store”. It’s why Harold comes back every year.
And, “Compared to the fucking turkey you might get elsewhere, here you get a genuine bonus!”
Serving the customer.
Zabar’s is a retail business, Harold explains. The business rules are simple: you get customers, treat them nicely, and bend over backwards if you have to, and, get the money.
Zabar’s regular customers are knowledgeable and demanding. Everyone wants the best cut – from the middle. But, if you berate a customer, forget the money.
Harold tells me there is no pleasing some customers. You cannot do enough to satisfy them but you have to overlook that – it’s a retail business!
For Harold, Saul’s daily involvement in every part of the store is “As it should be. Saul’s an owner. Can’t blame him for that”. And, everyone ultimately answers to Saul, who is viewed more like the head of a family - and all that can entail - than a CEO.
Near the end of our visit a Zabar’s worker comes out of the kitchen area hauling a plastic bag stuffed with trash. Harold tells me “He’s the most important man in the store.”
Think about that. Harold well understands that certain duties some might see as insignificant or less than dignified can break a business if not performed well, if not done with dignity.

*A note of explanation is called for. My title is from a “pull quote” I used for a “phantom workshop,” “To Save the Time of the User: Customer Service in Libraries”, which, while fully developed for presentation in Berlin, Germany never took place for insufficient enrollment. It haunts Google.


@Copyright John Lubans 2014

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