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Steve Peljovich on Buying and Running Michael's Deli

Photo: Steve Peljovich/Meg Jones Wall

When the 25-plus-year-old Michael's Deli in Brookline was sold in 2012 many — including Eater — wondered aloud if either the great cold cuts or bad attitude the former owner Michael Sobelman was famous and infamous for, respectively, would go away. If increasing Yelp scores and the return of formerly lost customers are any indication, new owner Steven Peljovich continues to put out some of the best Jewish deli in the region while also establishing a new level of service. Upon learning that Peljovich has taken down Sobelman's "no reading" signs and was adding new seating to his deli, Eater went to Coolidge Corner, ordered a pastrami sandwich, and spoke with him about how he came to purchase Michael's and the changes he has made since owning it. He also explains his efforts to win back the community and teases the idea of co-starting a deli food truck in Boston.

Tell me about your background and how you came to own Michael's.
I have been in the restaurant business for over 20 years, running primarily full-service restaurants. Locally, I worked with John Harvard's for eight years. I worked with the folks who used to run Capital Grille, Bugaboo Creek, and Longhorn Steakhouse. Before that, I spent nearly eight years with Hard Rock. I never got any sleep. Fun stuff.

I grew up in Miami Beach — so maybe not New York — but we still had real delis. People migrated from New York to Florida to open traditional old-school delis. Of course none of them really exist in Miami Beach anymore. I was getting frustrated with the Hard Rock kind of lifestyle. I had three kids. I learned a ton in my 20 years, and it was time to do something on my own. My father-in-law had been a regular here and was talking to Michael all the time, telling him I'd jump in whenever he was ready to retire. Two years ago this coming New Year's Eve, we all met here and talked about a plan of transition. I officially bought it in May 2012, and that's how I ended up where we're at now.

It's no secret reading old reviews or really any article about the transition that Michael had a reputation for being difficult, shall we say?
The thing about Michael is no one could argue with what he knew about food. He was in the business for over 30 years. His temperament was something many people had an issue with. For whatever reason, he felt that was the way he should operate. He felt it was part of the shtick, or maybe it was just his personality. Throughout his time with me, he was great — very nurturing, taught me all the recipes, all the contacts with his vendors from 30+ years. I've maintained all of those. That wouldn't have happened if he didn't make that happen.

But yeah, he had a reputation for being pretty surly. If somebody ordered something the way he didn't like it, he'd tell them to go elsewhere. If they sat at a table and opened a newspaper he'd tell them to go elsewhere, even if the place was empty. I'm from a different school of thought. Now it's a comfortable place. It's a lot more fun to do it that way.

The state of deli nation-wide is a tough one. Have you lost any vendors to bankruptcy?
They're all still in business. I get the vast majority of my raw meats that we cook here from the Bronx. I get a lot of my traditional Jewish products that are too time-consuming to make — stuffed cabbage, latkes, blintzes — in from New York. I get par-baked bagels in that we bake off fresh every day. And then there's stuff in house. Family recipes, or friends' families' recipes. Or even customers coming in with recipes for me to try. Sort of the way small delis used to operate. You knew everybody's name, they would tell you exactly what they felt about your product. You'd either modify it or explain to them why you did it the way you did, and then get on with it. That's opposed to telling them to go fly a kite, which Michael used to do.

How do you make the determination whether to buy a product or make it yourself?
The primary thing is consistency. If I can make it in house and it's going to be a consistent product, that's the first step. Then it's a matter of figuring how much time and energy it takes to make that product versus if there's an alternate product that is cost effective with great flavor. I made potato kugel this last Passover from scratch — almost 70 pounds' worth. It took me almost two days. So I've decided this coming Passover I'm not going to make potato kugel, I'm going to find an alternate source that will be a great product.

Almost all of our vendors use no additives or preservatives. They come in ready to serve. If I don't use it, it goes in the waste basket. The expiration dates are days, not months. When people buy our meats to take home, they have two or three days. It's not supermarket stuff that will last weeks. It's just meat and spices.

What do you make in house?
We make corned beef, brisket, pastrami, roast beef. When I took over, I wanted to stay traditional but also be a little out there. So I came up with a maple mustard corned beef. I take it out of the pot before it's done cooking, cover it with brown sugar and deli mustard, throw it in the oven, and it's my Jewish version of a glazed ham. From a food TV show, I stole the idea of a fig and balsamic reduction, and I used it to make a new style of pastrami. We start with a base cream cheese and make all our specialty cream cheeses from it — I'm not churning cream cheese back there.

You've also come up with something you call "Krazy Knishes."
My days are sort of like Groundhog Day in a lot of ways. I cook the brisket, I cook the pastrami, I cook the roast beef. It's all sort of the same sorts of things, so this was a way to do something a little different. Michael had made pastrami knishes, and I realized we could take it to a whole new level. Every week, we come up with three non-traditional flavors to go into a knish. Food is yummy. If you wrap it in dough and bake it, it's going to stay yummy. The biggest challenge has been trying to come up every single week with three knishes that are either related to each other or related to something that's topical. It's been well over a year, and we've made at least 150 knishes. Some have been repeated or tweaked.

Any mistakes?
There were unsuccessful ones. The worst one we made was a falafel knish. It's so dense and dry. The oddest successful one was the gefilte fish knish. My parents are from Cuba, so growing up, our Jewish food was mixed with Cuban food. Our gefilte fish would have peppers and onions or citrus and garlic. So I made that gefilte fish and turned it into a knish and it was very good. I was going for it knowing it might fail. The most successful ones were tacos, barbecue meatloaf, and macaroni and cheese. A lot of the sweet ones, people ask for again. We did a Boston cream pie for Boston's 383rd birthday, and it was like a Jewish éclair. It's harder to think of what we haven't put in a knish versus what we have.

You recently added more seats. Do you have any other expansion in mind?
I'm really expanding my catering. To me, it's an untapped part of this business. The unfortunate reality is a lot of the catering I do right now is for shivas [Jewish mourning periods]. It's a difficult part of the business, but when you get the calls back later about how special it was for that family, and how it was what that person would have wanted, I know I'm doing the right thing, providing comfort for people who need comfort. In a Jewish family, everything is around food.

At some point in the future, I'd love to expand. I've talked to food trucks. All I need is a truck; I've got the commissary right here. If we did a knish truck or just a corned beef and pastrami truck, it's a no-brainer. I don't have a food truck background. I'm very comfortable in a brick-and-mortar, four walls operation. Driving around the city would drive me bonkers. I'd love to partner with someone who knows food trucks. I'll deal with the creation of the product, you deal with the delivery.

I want to do a food truck "krazy knish" where different food trucks each come up with a knish. One of the things I don't like about food service is the people who don't realize that the better anybody does, the better everybody does. I'm more successful if everyone around me is more successful. It drives more traffic. Food trucks are fun, quirky, individual personality things, which I think fits with what I've been trying to do here. It's a great way to cross-promote. Have three knishes from three trucks, and ideally having the knishes on the trucks themselves.

Have you received any shocks coming from the corporate restaurant world that you weren't expecting?
I thought there'd be more surprises. My biggest concern when I was taking this over was "How am I going to make all this food?" My background had been in operating big box restaurants. I started off years ago in the kitchen, but recently I was much more on the operational side of things, overseeing all the people that do everything. It had been awhile since I had gotten my hands dirty. My biggest concern taking over a successful business was not screwing around with it in terms of the product. You can screw around with the decor a little bit. Definitely screw around with the personality if it needs that. But the food, especially in this place, was what made it successful. Those Yelp reviews were "I hate the person; I can't not eat the food." So for me, I had to maintain the quality of the food and it was my biggest concern going in. "What do I do if the food's not the same?" Because then, it doesn't matter what my personality is like. This place only survived because of the quality of the food.

How have you let people know you're under new management?
Part of the agreement I had with him was to stay on for three months to teach me what I needed to know and to reassure the people who are fans of his food that things were going to remain the same. It's not good to take over a successful business by kicking out the person who made it successful. It was an extended, publicly visible passing of the baton. Then it was a matter of going around to the community. I went to businesses all around here with platters of food to let them know it's a new era and that I'm going to be a good neighbor, be good to this community. I knew what the reaction would be. There's been an up swell of happiness in the community. Michael had a crazy war with the post office he ended up writing a letter to the attorney general over. The town had completely stopped doing business with him but orders platters from me all the time now.

I do a ton of stuff with charities. It's the way I was raised. We've done the Thorty Black & Gold sandwich with the Bruins' Shawn Thornton. Since the beginning of last season, $1 of each sandwich sold goes to his foundation. I just sent a check again this morning. It's been a great partnership, and they've been unbelievably great to work with. I can't tell you how much they've shown their appreciation for what is now maybe $1500 so far. We sponsor a Brookline little league team.

You build a business by doing the right things by the community. It's been a great year and a half so far. We've re-won a ton of awards that he had won previously. In a lot of ways we've made the place better than it was. I love watching people walking out saying it's the best sandwich they've ever had. To me, that's my validation. I want people walking out of here saying, "Holy crap, that was great. We'll be back tomorrow."
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Michael's Deli

256 Harvard Street, , MA 02446 (617) 738-3354 Visit Website