Saul’s Deli, a 36-year-old Berkeley institution, has been sold – Berkeleyside

Posted By on August 4, 2022

Theyve all owned Sauls! (Clockwise from left) David Rosenthal, Peter Levitt, Sam Tobis, Jesus Chuy Mendoza, Karen Adelman and Andra Lichtenstein. Credit Daniil Vishnevskiy

Sauls Restaurant and Delicatessen1475 Shattuck Ave. (near Vine Street), Berkeley

Its well-known that Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman, the co-owners of Berkeley institution Sauls Restaurant and Delicatessen for the last 26 years, have been trying to sell the business since 2016.They came close to finding a buyer in early 2020, in fact,but pandemic insecurities foiled the sale. But now theyre ready to share what Sauls regulars might have guessed for months now: two new partners have been named at the restaurant, and will eventually take over full ownership in the coming years.

The new partners are longtime Sauls chef Jesus Chuy Mendoza and Sam Tobis, the owner of Oaklands Grand Bakery since 2017. But Its not a super clean cut, like, heres your money, goodbye, Adelman said.

Sam made it clear that he wanted to come in and learn from us and meet our regular customers through us, so Levitt and Adelman will remain at the business for now, just in a reduced capacity. Both are in their early 60s, and their goal is to fully transfer ownership to the new partners gradually, probably over the next several years.

Chuy and I compliment each other, so that I can focus more on the things I do well, Tobis said, describing the Sauls family as a strong core of people who have been working here for years.

Added Mendoza, We are a really strong team. Im excited and happy to be part of the future of this great restaurant.

One of the reason it took so long to find a buyer for Sauls, Adelman and Levitt said, is because they couldnt sell Sauls to just anyone. Instead, they sought out new owners who understand the restaurants unique role as not only a longstanding and popular restaurant, but also as a Jewish gathering spot.

Before Sauls was Sauls, it opened as a lunch counter called the Pantry Shelf in 1955. It wasnt a deli per se, though it had delicatessen in big letters above the door and sold deli sandwiches along with burgers.

Some decades later, David Rosenthal bought the business and renamed it Rosenthals. That lasted until 1986, when Andra Lichtenstein put together a partnership to buy the deli, naming it after her father, Saul Lichtenstein. Both Rosenthal and Lichtenstein are still regulars at the restaurant today.

Adelman started as a server at Sauls in 1989, and Levitt became chef there in 1995 after time in the kitchen at Chez Panisse and Oliveto. They bought Sauls together in 1996 and have co-managed it ever since.

They are certain they found the right people to carry the Sauls legacy forward.

The new energy there feels exciting, Adelman said. Both deeply care about the philosophy and spirit of the place. Chuy has been working with our employees so long that people work really hard for him, and he and Peter are super close. Sam is really smart and has virtually no ego in it, which is rare in the restaurant industry. Its a passion project for them and not just a job.

A decade ago, when Mendoza began work at Sauls, he was unfamiliar with the cuisine, Adelman said. But like Levitt, who also didnt grow up with traditional Jewish deli food (hes from Johannesburg, South Africa) hes learned a tremendous amount about the dishes since then, eating whatever deli he can when he travels and reading everything he can get his hands on.

Tobis, originally from New York, came to the area to attend Cal and never left. (His parents and sister have since joined him here.) He met Levitt in 2017 after he had taken over Grand Bakery, a longtime Sauls vendor that sold its baked goods to the deli.

Levitt made it known then that he was looking for a buyer, but Tobis turned the overture down, saying that he had enough on his plate. But his interest in the deli grew over time, and since last November he has been a noticeable presence at Sauls, learning the ropes, while Mendoza continues running his domain, the very kitchen hes worked in for over 10 years.

Tobis said Levitt has been a huge influence on how he runs Grand Bakery. For example, hes switched to using all organic, heirloom flour for Grands baked goods.

Peter came up in the heart of the California food movement, and I think hes one of the most underappreciated deli men in the country, Tobis said. Sauls is East Coast and Eastern Europe meets Middle East, from comfort shtetl fare to falafel and house-made pita every day. This cross-pollination of food from the Jewish diaspora is just fabulous.

The one thing Tobis hopes to change is the bakery program at Sauls.

Grand Bakerys kitchen is parve (meaning no butter can be used), but Tobis has brought plenty of general baking know-how to Sauls, which does not restrict its menu to kosher dishes. He has also hired a new baker, and has converted part of the Sauls office into a new area devoted to baking.

Traditional goods, such as babka, rugelach and black-and-white cookies, have improved over the previous iterations, and some new items have been added, like tahini cookies. (Sauls already made its own bagels and pita in-house.)

Even though he has ownership in two East Bay Jewish food businesses, Tobis said each is distinct and will remain that way.

Im very excited to continue the legacy, culture and food experience that Karen and Peter have cultivated, he said. Grand Bakery will maintain its own identity and kosher experience.

For their part, Levitt and Adelman couldnt be happier with the arrangement, one that allows flexibility in their schedule for the first time in decades.For example, Levitt recently traveled to Poland to volunteer with World Central Kitchen, cooking for Ukrainian refugees for two weeks in May and then staying in Berlin and traveling, knowing Sauls was in good hands. He was away for four months, something that would have been unthinkable until recently.

Peter doesnt want to be the guy doing it anymore, but his curiosity and talent will remain part of Sauls, Adelman said.

Adelman is happy to stay on doing social media, graphics and other tasks for now, while taking her time to figure out whats next.

Its hard to know who I am without Sauls, as Ive been there so long, Adelman said. People see me and they suddenly get hungry.

A version of this storyfirst appeared on J., the Jewish News of Northern California. Reprinted with permission.

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Saul's Deli, a 36-year-old Berkeley institution, has been sold - Berkeleyside

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