Ziggy took a journey to US deli success - via Wirral


ZIGGY Gruber has made it his mission to carry on the legacy of those who have come before him in the delicatessen business.

But the 47-year-old has taken a slightly different route from those already in the industry.

Most are born into it, like Ziggy, but the path that the native New Yorker took included a four-year stay on Merseyside.

And a trip to Anfield to see Liverpool FC in action is a memory that Ziggy will never forget.

He told me: "I was standing on the Kop, and I was only about 16 at the time.

"I don't have a clue who Liverpool were playing because I was too focused on not dying!

"Someone asked me after the game if I would ever go to another one, or if I would rather watch it on television . . . I chose the latter."

Ziggy made the trip to Merseyside, where his mother Pamela was born, specifically Wirral, at the age of 15 after his grandfather had died.

He said: "My mother thought it would be a good way to take my mind off my grandfather's death, plus we hadn't seen our family there for years.

"I was very close to my grandparents, specifically my grandfather Max - he had the first deli on Broadway called the Rialto.

"I spent so much time in the deli, and worked there from a young age.

"When I went to meet my cousins, who actually lived in Yorkshire, one of them told me that he was going to culinary school and suggested I join him.

"So I went back to Liverpool and was told that there were two places to go, one of which was in Carlett Park in Eastham."

Ziggy, having not gained any A-levels or qualifications, had to talk his way into the college.

He explained: "During the summer break I met with the school master.

"He asked if I had any high school diplomas or qualifications . . . and I didn't.

"So I asked him if there was a discretionary fund and I made a donation.

"Not only was this such a Jewish thing to do, but it was such a Liverpool thing to do!

"I rented a room in someone's house, but this was a big adjustment for a 16-year-old.

"Living on the seafront in New Brighton did help, and I have always been a flexible kind of guy so I made friends easily."

Ziggy was brought up in a very conservative Jewish home, which was perpetuated by his grandfather's deli where he was surrounded by Jewish people.

On Rosh Hashana, Ziggy attended a synagogue in Wallasey and got a response he was not expecting.

"They looked at me like I was the messiah," he joked. "There was around 12 people there, all elderly.

"At the end of the service someone asked if I was Jewish, followed up with 'prove it'!

"I was invited to the home of Mrs Daniels after the service and she explained that they had not seen a young person in the area for a long time."

Upon completion of culinary school, where he met another Liverpool Jew named Julian Levene, Ziggy went to work at the prestigious Le Gavroche - once home to Gordon Ramsey, Marco Pierre White and Pierre Koffman.

Ziggy said: "It was a great experience. I was only 17 at the time and I was living in a flat, which I rented from a Jewish guy, in Nottingham Place, London.

"The biggest thing I learned was how to be a good pastry chef.

"While I was there I stumbled across Reuben's Delicatessen, that was an interesting experience.

"There was an old guy carving some salt beef and I asked him to make me a sandwich.

"I expected him to put it on some nice rye bread. Instead he put it on some white bread - that's very not Jewish.

"Then I asked for some good mustard, but rather than putting on some Jewish-style deli mustard, he put on this English mustard that chokes you.

"I'm eating this and I asked for a cream soda and he looked at me like 'what are you talking about?'

"I said 'you know, this place is very uncivilised'."

Having completed his time at La Gavroche, Ziggy returned to New York to take over his father's Cresthill Kosher Deli.

"My uncle Seymour handed me keys to the restaurant and said 'It's all yours, kid'," he recalled.

"My father and I built that store into another family success and our reputation for traditional deli food had become so strong that West Point Military Academy approached us to become its official kosher caterer.

"We cleaned the store up and took what I had learned in England and added it to the heimishe food.

"Eventually someone offered to buy the store from us and we sold it because we could see how the neighbourhood was changing and it wasn't really a safe place for a Jewish business anymore.

"I would get brokers calling up all the time to make an offer, but we could see the writing was on the wall and went with it.

"We Jews don't hang around when this kind of thing happens."

Ziggy went to Los Angeles, initially to keep an eye on his brother Jonathan - a film director who co-wrote Final Destination 2 and The Butterfly Effect.

Having opened another deli while in LA, Ziggy hit another snag when the owner of the building, "an Arab guy", didn't like the idea of having a Jewish deli on his premises.

Ziggy recalled: "He tried everything he could to close us down.

"He removed our parking spaces, which is a huge loss in LA.

"We took him to court, won, then he appealed and we won again. We kept winning the battles but ultimately we lost the war.

"Antisemitism worked in our favour though, as we settled for a substantial amount.

"I wasn't enamoured with celebrities or that lifestyle - I'd much rather deal with Mrs Goldberg or Mrs Rosenberg as they are normal people.

"So I moved back to New York and got talking to one of the owners of the Carnegie Deli who was looking to open in Times Square, but it never happened."

Ziggy admits that he wasn't looking for glory at this point, and he just needed, aged 28, to make money.

He continued: "One day I got a phone call from a guy named Lenny Freeman.

"He was a shopping centre developer and had a son called Kenny who wanted to go into the restaurant business in Houston, Texas.

"He told me that he would back me, but it had to be a deli.

"I was a little shocked, I didn't think there were any Jews there.

"I told him that I wasn't going to water my food down and that I don't make it for the goyim!

"I went down, we shook hands and, in 1999, Kenny and Ziggy's was born."

The deli has become synonymous, not just in Houston, but across the world, for some of the best Jewish food.

With a captive audience of more than 100,000 Jews in Houston, it's not hard to see why it has become such a success.

Ziggy agrees, adding: "These people were hoping for something, but they weren't expecting the quality that we gave them.

"It's what I've been doing all my life, through generations of my family - it's what we do.

"We started off locally then suddenly critics would come from across the country and be blown away.

"Jews would come and bring their relatives and be proud of the place. It's become a national phenomenon and the store keeps growing and growing.

"I've always wanted to make people happy and have a successful business - it's something I've always strived for."

The kosher diet is often criticised for being unhealthy.

Ziggy described this in a way only Ziggy could - with Yiddish.

He speaks it almost fluently thanks to his grandparents - his website even has a Yiddish dictionary for those looking to understand his menu a bit easier.

He said: "It's bubbemeises (an old wive's tale). You see more steak houses opening in America than ever before.

"There are head-to-tail restaurants everywhere. The reality is that people want to, and try to, eat healthily but in the long run they are always cheating.

"I didn't see the fish and chip shops closing . . . I'm sure they are all doing well."

Jews and food always go together - something Ziggy puts down to history.

He added: "Jews, Italians and Greeks are all over the food business. When we came over in the old days we needed a skill. This was something that could be learned and we ended up doing it very well.

"A lot of the top chefs are Jewish - I don't know if Pierre Koffmann admits it, but I know for a fact that he is Jewish. He might deny it, but he is."

Ziggy has a young family, with two-year-old daughter Isabelle and eight-month-old Maxine.

He married Mimi in 2013 at the Dohany Street Synagogue, Budapest, as a tribute to his grandfather.

Eldest daughter Isabelle, "runs the deli".

He laughed: "We want her to go into the business. She walks around like she owns the joint.

"I joke around with customers and tell them that I work for her!"


Ziggy and Mimi's wedding ceremony can be viewed at

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph