Ziggy Gruber didn’t expect he would be the central character in Deli Man, a 2015 documentary about Jewish delis around the U.S. But Gruber, owner and chef of Kenny & Ziggy’s and third-generation deli man, stole the show. When he asked film director Erik Greenberg Anjou why, “he said, ‘because you’re the biggest character I know.’ And if you see the film, I guess I am a character,” said Gruber.
A character he is and one sure to make you smile with his stories and good food. Gruber arrived in Houston one hot summer day at the request of Lenny Friedman, a friend of a friend, who wanted to bring true New York deli food to Houston. “When I got off the plane, like a wall of heat -- it was June at the time -- hit me. I felt like I was in a tumble dryer.”
Gruber didn’t think he could handle the heat but Friedman convinced him that it was just an unusually hot summer in Houston. Impressed with the Post Oak location where the original Kenny & Ziggy’s has operated since 1999, Gruber and Friedman shook hands and the rest is history. Nearly 17 years later, Gruber opened doors to the deli’s second location in West U. We caught up with him over breakfast at his new store.
What surprised you about Houston?
I’ll tell you what I’ve seen. New York as you know is a very multicultural city. I don’t think Houston was as multicultural 17 or 18 years ago but I would say today we definitely have expanded. The Asian community, Bellaire Boulevard has grown tremendously. Also the Indian and Pakistani community with all their culture and food has grown tremendously, everything from all Latin American countries and the Caribbean. Which I like because the one thing that I appreciate being an ethnic restaurant, which we are, I appreciate other people’s cultural food.
So has your clientele changed?
That’s the funny thing, that it has. When we first opened up, the New Yorkers and the Jewish community patronized us, I would say 70 percent and 30 percent were people that never ate a deli. What’s happened is over the years -- not that we’ve lost any of our clientele, we have not -- our volume has grown and our notoriety, not only here in Houston but nationally as well as throughout Texas and the southwest, it’s definitely grown the reverse. So they became the 30 percent and the rest is 70 percent. We’re seeing people from all around the world; it’s just great. But, you know, what it comes down to is good food is good food and if it’s tasty, it’s tasty.
How has your menu changed over the years?
It’s expanded. I’ve gotten to the level where I can say we’ve got the most complete New York-style menu there is. What we’ve done is for dinner and stuff like that we offer more fresh fish, we offer a lot more salads. We have something for everyone. To top it all off, we’ve got a million and one types of old-school, which nobody does, the butter cookies and rainbow cookies. We have our own in-house bakery and make all of our cakes and pies.
Part of the focus of Deli Man is how delis are dwindling in numbers. Why is that?
It’s very simple. In the early 1900s you had a lot of Jewish immigrants who came here to the United States. They opened up delis, they were very uneducated, they weren’t big places like the one on Post Oak. They were very small, little and mom would work in the back and dad would work behind the counter, very small, and they opened up these places for the workers that worked in the garment business and all of these other businesses because their wives were probably home in the old country. Basically, the Jewish delicatessen is just like the old story of the taqueria or a Chinese restaurant. It’s how they could make money and how they could also take care of their community at the same time. So what’s happened is over the years, these deli owners didn’t want their children to go into the business. They want to be doctors and lawyers and business people.
Do you see younger people trying to get into the business?
Today you see younger people trying to do it some but they don’t have a reference point so they’re trying to reinvent it. For somebody like myself who knows what the stuff is supposed to taste like, it doesn’t do it for us, but for a younger generation who doesn’t know, they’ve rebranded it.
You have a daughter.
I have a daughter named Isabel, we call her Izzy. I have a daughter coming any minute named Maxine so we’ll have Max. [Editor’s Note: Max was born last month after this interview.]
Max and Izzy ...
Yeah so it’s very New York Jewish deli name. The funny part is when we found out the gender of the baby, the second one, because we’re only having two, that’s it -- we’re not gonna be outnumbered. When we heard that it was going to be a girl, my wife knows exactly what I’m thinking: what about the business? Because we’re three generations, we want it to continue. And there’s a very famous restaurant called Russ & Daughters in New York and I’m very friendly with the family, so my wife says: if it worked out for the Russes, it’ll work out for you. So Ziggy and Daughters.
What are your favorite places to eat in Houston?
I’m giving a disclaimer because he happens to be one of my closest friends but he happens to be a talented chef. I like going to Arturo Boada Cuisine. It reminds me of a New York joint. It’s very intimate and the food is very good and consistent, and if you know Arturo, he’s a bigger character than mine. Unfortunately, Mark’s was one of my favorite places and it’s not longer with us and I think that’s a terrible loss for the city of Houston because he was cooking on a different level. I hope he does reemerge and reinvent himself. I like Da Marco’s. That’s one of my favorites. I like Brennan’s. Their food is excellent. I also like my friend Dimitri over at Niko Niko’s, again another disclaimer, he’s one of my close friends.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Even though I probably had misconceptions before I got here, the one thing I will say is I love and adore Houston. What makes Houston is -- it’s certainly not the weather -- but the people in Houston are the salt of the earth and the people make Houston a great place. They’re the most genuine people and talk about trying to help you and give you the shirt off their back, which is really truly an amazing thing. And for myself what I love here is, being from New York, I don’t think people realize the amount of theater here, about our symphony, about our opera, about our ballet and about how cultural we are. People have to know that we’re a very cultural, sophisticated city. Whenever my friends come from New York, I make sure I take them to shows, that I take them to museums, and they’re very, very shocked. Then they’re like, ‘man, I could move down here.’