Making the shift to a business he had little practical experience with was intimidating for Lebewohl, but it's one he quickly warmed to, despite the heartbreaking circumstances of his forced career change. He recalls many occasions when he'd think back to a lesson he learned from a professor at Brooklyn Law School. "Professor Wein had an expression—'SAK.' It stood for 'Somebody Always Knows.' He always told us, 'Don't be embarrassed to call up someone and ask.' He said that's how you learn. He'd ask us: 'What's the definition of an expert? Someone who's done it once before.'"
Doing it once before has given the Lebewohls the courage to do it again. Looking ahead, Jack and his sons plan on
opening a second branch of the deli on the Upper East Side (75th Street and First Avenue), something Lebewohl explains that Abe would have never done. "Abe always said that we can't expand because we can't be in two places at once," recalls Lebewohl. "And I'd say, so what? You'll be more efficient if you have several stores. But he was from the old school. He had to be there. He had to touch the customers."
But Abe's hands-on edict is what made and still makes the Second Avenue Deli someplace special, a restaurant more like a home than a business. For instance, there's the story of the two bachelors that Lebewohl loves to share: "There were these two men—both bachelors, a divorced father and son—who'd come in 5-6 times a week to eat at the counter. And every time they'd come in, they'd sit down, and I'd notice that our waitress, Selma, who worked with us for years, wouldn't give them menus. I started to get curious, so one night I walked over and listened in. She looks at them and says, 'Okay, boys, tonight you'll start with soup then have steak, because you haven't had any steak for a while. But you're gaining some weight so you aren't having starches, only vegetables.' She told them what to eat; they did not order. It was like going to mama's table." And if Jack has anything to do with it, that's how things will stay, no matter what the address.
Feeding a Dream
While Zabar, Cohen, and Lebewohl make up the old guard of food pioneers, their feisty, entrepreneurial spirit has not faded with the next generations. Take Mya Jacobson '03, a 34-year-old Brooklyn Law graduate who worked as a trader on the American Stock Exchange for seven years and attended law school at night. While in law school, Jacobson became known for one thing—and it had nothing to do with mastery of torts or criminal procedure. It was all about her cookies. "I was always baking and bringing snacks for study groups—brownies, cakes, cookies. People were very helpful with their notes and in return I baked for them."
After graduation, Jacobson realized that baking might be more than just a way to get in good with her study group. She knew in her heart that Wall Street was not for her and did some soul searching, trying to determine what she really wanted from life. "I knew I wanted to create a business that meant something to me," she says. "I thought of things that feed your soul—words and charity came to mind, and something oven-fresh, and all-natural, but I also wanted something that was going to sell from a business perspective. I knew it had to be timeless, ship well, and perfect for any occasion, and that was cookies."
She launched Feed Your Soul in 2004 with little more than a mail order Web site and an oven in her apartment where she baked 25 varieties of preservative-free, all-natural soft and crispy cookies in homespun flavors like pumpkin pie and chocolate graham and more exotic creations like white chocolate cherry jubilee.
To incorporate her love of words, each cookie gift box or tin comes wrapped with an inspirational proverb or saying to match the occasion. A gift sent as a "Thank You" might include this line from Marcel Proust: "Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom."