History of Shapiro’s Delicatessen
The following is an excerpt from Reid Duffy’s book, “Indiana’s Favorite Restaurants”, Copyright © 2001. All rights reserved. For more information or to order a copy, please visit the Indiana University Press.
“Cook good, serve generous, price modestly, and people will come.” These words to live and nosh by have been the guiding philosophy of Shapiro’s Delicatessen and Cafeteria since 1905. More than 2,000 customers drop in each day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at its two locations. It is far and away Indiana’s, and many would argue the Midwest’s, prime forum for corned beef and pastrami piled high on rye or egg bun and for matzo ball and chicken noodle soups, and for such comfort foods as Swiss steak, baked chicken, meat loaf, macaroni and cheese, and unconscionably high-rise pies, cakes, and pastries. And it is perhaps the last Hoosier haven for smoked pickled tongue.
This is not exactly what Louis and Rebecca Shapiro had in mind when they opened their tiny grocery-deli in 1905, eight blocks south of downtown Indianapolis. The Shapiros were just two years removed from their native Russia, where Louis’ grandfather was a primary food supplier for the Czar’s naval fleet, and where Louis operated a grocery in Odessa named to reflect his career ambitions, the American Grocery Company. The anti-Jewish pogroms that erupted in Russia at the turn of the century meant that Louis was spending many nights fending off vandals while Rebecca and the children hid in the basement. The Shapiros emigrated to America in 1903, settling in Indianapolis. After raising capital through pushcart street sales of flour and sugar, they set up shop at Meridian and McCarty streets, with living quarters above the store for themselves and their eight children. The Shapiros saw to it that the grocery was a family affair, waking the children at 3 each morning with the rallying cry, “The day is half over already!”
The grocery featured canned goods stacked in dazzling pyramid displays, pickles and mayonnaise, and kosher deli meats supplied by the Vienna Meat Company out of Chicago. The transition to restaurant began after the end of Prohibition in the mid-30s, when aging Louis, suffering from back problems, delegated the running of the store to sons Abe, Izzy, and Max. They started selling beer for ten cents a bottle, and before long customers were ordering salami (29 cents) and corned beef (10 cents) sandwiches to go with the brew. That brought about the appearance of tables and chairs. The next thing they knew, the Shapiros were installing a steam table to showcase Rebecca’s dinner triumphs, notably her spaghetti and meatballs.
Their timing proved exquisite. The surrounding ethnic neighborhood was giving way to industrial expansion and general migration north, dooming Shapiro’s prospects as a full-service grocery but enhancing its reputation as a destination deli. In 1940 Louis formally retired, anointing Izzy to handle the deli counter, Abe, with his award-winning corned beef recipe, to preside over the kitchen, and bon-vivant Max, a dedicated bachelor, to oversee the whole operation. A photograph in the restaurant shows Louis surrounded by his five grown sons, with Max looking like he’s about to head off to the Stork Club, decked out in a double-breasted suit, boutonni”re, and spats. Indeed, even in a sauce-stained apron, Max Shapiro was the essence of dapper and debonair.
Max served as major domo of Shapiro’s for 44 years, even as his bachelorhood came to a halt in his 50s. He guided Shapiro’s through several expansions, including a kitchen and bakery that could fully accommodate the preparation of its minimum daily requirement of 300 pounds of steam-cooked corned beef briskets; 100 pounds each of pastrami, turkey, and roast beef; 150 to 200 loaves of rye bread, and the quartering of 1,000 pickles. During this period, Max kept vacations to a minimum, figuring each day was a schmoozefest with good friends over good eats. Nor did the word “retirement” find its way into his vocabulary; he continued to supervise Shapiro’s past his 80th birthday.
His two marriages relatively late in life produced no children, but he ensured continuing Shapiro leadership by enticing his nephew, businessman and investment banker Mort Shapiro, and Mort’s son Brian, fresh from law school, to join the firm in 1984. Thus they were in place when Max died suddenly in October 1984. Shortly before, they had convinced Max of the wisdom of opening a second Shapiro’s off West 86th Street and Township Line Road on the northwest side, and it was an immediate and lasting success. Perfectionist Max had resisted such expansion despite the entreaties of his northside clientele with the heartfelt if dubious explanation, “Why should I open a second restaurant when I still haven’t got the first one off the ground?”
Mort, handling books and payroll, and Brian, running day-to-day operations with an uncompromising insistence on quality, saw to it that both locations ran on all cylinders as Indiana’s premier and most productive deli operation. Mort’s death in 1999 invested Brian with the full mantle of fourth-generation leadership of Shapiro’s, now in its second century of cooking well, serving generously, pricing moderately, and watching customers continue to come.
|Reprinted with permission of:
Indiana University Press
601 N. Morton St.
Bloomington, IN 47404
(812) 855-8817 or 1-800-842-6796