Historicist: The Spicy Story of Toronto’s First Jewish Delicatessen

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Historicist: The Spicy Story of Toronto’s First Jewish Delicatessen

The Harris family brought good eats and smoked meats to the city.

Sarah Harris posing inside the new deli at 178 Queen Street West c. 1910. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 3283.

Sarah Harris posing inside her family’s new deli at 178 Queen Street West c. 1910. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 3283.

Toronto is currently one of the most multicultural cities in the world, boasting an abundance of diverse and sophisticated ethnic restaurants across the GTA. When it comes to Jewish options alone, there are dozens of eateries that offer a range of delicacies including traditional dishes, kosher, deli, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and nouveau Jewish cuisine. But back at the beginning of the 20th century, there was only one place in the city to go for Jewish food. The first Jewish restaurant in the city was a delicatessen owned by Sam and Sarah Harris, which opened in 1900. There were a number of restaurants in the city, but with the exception of the one Chinese restaurant established by Sing Tom in 1901 across from City Hall at 37 1/2 Queen Street West, they all served traditional British-type fare that catered to middle and upper-class Torontonians. Consequently, the delicatessen was quite distinct, offering exotic international delicacies to tempt the local pedestrian palate. Ultimately, the Harris Deli was one of the restaurants in Toronto that helped pave the way for other ethnic eateries to take root in the city.

Samuel and Sarah Harris were Eastern European Jews, who came to North America during the late 19th century—Sam to Boston and Sarah to Toronto. They met one another and married in Detroit in 1892. Sarah had a son, Samuel Aaron, from another relationship who had been born in Toronto and was four years old at the time she married Sam. The couple later welcomed two more sons, William in 1895 and Louis in 1906, who were respectively born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Toronto. The Harris family spoke Yiddish and English and maintained an Orthodox Jewish home, which of course included keeping kosher. The family struggled to make ends meet and drew their inspiration for future success from a family member in the midwest who was in the deli business. The couple dreamed of a better life and subsequently moved back to Canada to open a delicatessen.

The Harris Delicatessen was located at 233 Queen Street West, on the south side of the street slightly west of Simcoe Street. It was situated in a central, sophisticated, and vibrant part of the city, close to City Hall and slightly west of St. John’s Ward—Toronto’s first Jewish enclave— which was commonly referred to at that time as “The Ward.” The restaurant was on the ground floor of a two-storey brick building. The family resided above the deli on the second floor. According to family lore, the original name of the business was the Chicago Delicatessen.

A section of the Goad’s Toronto Fire Plan, revealing the two locations the Harris Delicatessen occupied on Queen Street West, Plate 8, 1903.

A section of the Goad’s Toronto Fire Plan, revealing the two locations the Harris Delicatessen occupied on Queen Street West, Plate 8, 1903.

During the first few years, the delicatessen operated as a store and small restaurant that specialized in kosher deli meats and luxury food products imported from the United States and Europe. Since there were no kosher butchers in Toronto producing smoked meats, Harris imported his meat from Chicago, which was famous for its stockyards. It was also home to some of the earliest manufacturers of cured kosher meats, particularly David Berg & Co. (est. 1860) and Vienna Beef (est. 1893). Harris worked out an arrangement with one of the kosher smoked meat manufacturers and received regular shipments of this succulent product from the Windy City, relying on an expedited train service to prevent spoilage en route. While most of their fresh, bottled, and canned goods were imported, the Harris family likely purchased the bread used for sandwiches from Sarah’s sister and brother-in-law, Ruth and Harris Ruben. The Rubens opened the first Jewish bakery in Toronto around the 1890s, which was situated a couple blocks from the deli on York Street.

The restaurant was renamed the Harris Delicatessen a year or two after it opened. Its early clientele was primarily comprised of wealthy German Jews who arrived during the mid to late 19th century. This first wave of Jewish immigrants included many entrepreneurs and professionals who adapted quickly to Canadian life but likely missed the culinary delicacies that they once enjoyed in Europe. Some of the prominent citizens that Sam Aaron recalled frequenting the deli in an interview that he conducted in 1973 included Magistrate Jacob Cohen, Judge Sam Factor, community leader Edmund Scheuer, and Rabbi Jacobs from Holy Blossom.

Since the restaurant served kosher deli food, it likely held great appeal to the thousands of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who arrived in Toronto at the turn of the century and lived nearby in the Ward. By 1910, the Ward was approximately 80 percent Jewish, which meant there were around 15,000 Jewish residents. Despite the fact that delicatessen meats originated in central and eastern Europe—primarily Germany, France, and Romania—they were a luxury good mainly sold in the urban centres. These impoverished Jews mostly hailed from small shtetles (Yiddish for small Jewish village). In the old country, these immigrants rarely had the funds to eat meat and typically only splurged to purchase beef or chicken for the Sabbath dinner and other important occasions. This massive second wave of Jews also did not have a tradition of eating out at restaurants in the old country. Moreover, early Jewish housewives were wary of buying prepared foods and eating out, believing that it was beyond their means. They were also fearful that dining out could harm their reputation as a great cook or balabusta (a Yiddish term for good homemaker), which was an intrinsic part of their identity. Indeed, according to American historian Hasia Diner, the author of Hungering for America: Italian, Irish & Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration, the Yiddish term oyessessen (eating out) was used for the fist time in an article published in 1903 in New York’s Jewish Daily Forward.

Sam Aaron Harris Portrait from the T. Eaton Co., Ca. 1902

(Right: Portrait of Sam Aaron Harris c. 1902)

The Harris Delicatessen was initially open on weekdays but closed on Saturday and Sundays for both the Jewish and Christian sabbaths. Everyone in the Harris family contributed to the business and played an important role. Sarah Harris was an equal and capable partner, who managed the cash register and helped prepare sandwiches and other takeaway packages. When the deli first opened when Sam Aaron was a boy, he would leave Phoebe Street School in the afternoon and help his father behind the counter. He would also make deliveries to clients on his bike. In an interview conducted by Cyrel Troster and Cheryl Herbert in 1973, Sam Aaron described carrying a bag on his back and a pail on each of his handlebars: one filled with pickles and the other deli sandwiches. He recalled that they sold their sandwiches for five cents apiece. Their youngest and best customers were the newsies, who conducted most of their work hawking papers on street corners before and after school and on weekends. Harris Deli gave the newsies the preferred rate of two sandwiches for a nickel. Since these hardworking boys had healthy appetites and a broad network of contacts, this was likely an astute strategy. Sam Aaron later went on to learn how to carve the meat into thin, even slices by hand, a vital skill in the deli business required to please their discriminating patrons and avoid costly waste. The two youngest sons were heavily invested in their studies but also did their part to contribute to the business.

Sam Harris c. 1930. Photo used courtesy of Jeff Rose.

Sam Harris c. 1930. Photo used courtesy of Jeff Rose.

By 1908, the Jewish community in the area had significantly grown, and business was on the rise. The children of the new immigrants were eager to sample the tantalizing and taboo taste of the American-invented smoked-meat sandwich. David Sax, author of Save the Deli, describes smoked-meat sandwiches as the “original fusion cuisine,” because it blends European-style smoked meats served as a sandwich on rye bread with mustard. Eating deli, historians note, signified success to many new immigrants, since deli meats were formerly the preserve of the wealthy. In many respects, it was part of living the Canadian dream. In turn, the pervasive and popular soda shops, along with the small cafes, kosher restaurants, and delis were a comfortable and lively space for the new immigrants to socialize and escape from the dilapidated, noisy, and severely overcrowded cottages in the Ward. The deli also served as a popular hangout for youth, who according to Jan Ziegelman, author of 97 Orchard Street, New York, viewed it as “a second home, part lunchroom, part urban clubhouse, and at night, an after-hours meeting place for ghetto sweethearts.”

In response to this upsurge in business, the Harris family purchased a property across the street from the deli at 178 Queen Street West in 1908 and made plans to set up a larger, purpose-built, modern delicatessen. They secured a building permit and hired local architect James Patrick Hynes to work on the plans. A family friend from the US, architect F. Feldman was involved in overseeing the construction of the deli. Before charting out the design, Sam Aaron travelled to New York and Chicago to examine a number of different delis in order to review the layout of the restaurants, display areas, storage, processing, and other spaces. He described his research trip, stating:

We did everything right…I took a book with me and made plans of what I saw, and then we gathered those plans together when I came home and the architect and myself and Dad we decided we’d have this and we’d omit that and so forth. So it was really a beautiful place.

This excursion provided the family with tremendous insight into how the finest delis in North America functioned, along with ideas about how best to design the business. Between 1908 and 1910, the building was demolished and a new structure was erected. In order to keep costs down, the Harris family ended up taking on a lot of the construction work themselves. The total cost for the purchase of the land and building, along with the construction of the state-of-the-art deli, according to Sam Aaron, was $13,000. The business was assessed at $10,625 in September 1910, which was thousands of dollars higher than most of the enterprises on the block.

The grand opening of the new deli took place in the spring of 1910. The restaurant and shop were located at street level. The deli featured two white marble counters to display the food: one with sausages, frankfurters, smoked and pickled meats, and smoked fish and the other with dairy products like eggs, cake, and pastries. The shelving along the walls showcased imported canned and bottled goods—including condiments—from Europe and the United States. There was also a huge supply of pickles and bread for sandwiches. The back of the restaurant had adequate space to prepare sandwiches and package items for takeaway orders. Based on their food offerings, it appears as if the family made a concerted decision to relinquish the restaurant’s kosher status in order to sell a broader array of goods.

Harris Deli opening at 178 Queen St. W. in 1910 Directory

(Left: Ad published in the Toronto City Directory announcing the opening of the new store at 178 Queen Street West in 1910.)

Unlike the old shop, which only had space for tables outside or in the corners, the new facility included six to eight tables where patrons could sit down, socialize, and enjoy one of the deli’s gourmet sandwiches with a pickle and soda. The basement was used to boil and cure meat and to store food. The Harris family likely continued to import kosher smoked meat, sausages, and franks from Chicago but began producing pickled tongue, their house speciality, on the premises. The deli also featured a modern pulley system that was employed to move items from the storage room in the basement to the main floor. The second floor served as the family’s elegant residence. It had a modern kitchen with a refrigerator, marble floors, and a large bathroom. Since most of their brethren living in the Ward resided in tiny dilapidated cottages without indoor plumbing, this apartment would have been viewed by other Jewish immigrants as a palace. Finally, in the backyard, the family constructed a stable to accommodate their new horse, Dolly, and a cart that was used for deliveries.

The deli shop and restaurant business were thriving, attracting many loyal patrons from the Jewish community. According to the 1910 City Directory, there were a handful of Jewish restaurants in the Ward and other parts of the city but no other competitors in the deli trade. Harris had a monopoly on Jewish deli in the city and understood that he was in a position to capitalize on this situation because of the public’s growing devotion to deli foods and eating out. After the move, Sam Aaron noted in his interview that 90 to 95 per cent of their patrons were Jewish. Sam Harris decided to leverage his position and expand his deli empire by selling his merchandise to a select group of small local Jewish grocers and restaurant owners. He sold his deli sandwiches and wholesale merchandise to these businesses, which were cropping up in the Ward at a rapid pace, at a lower price to ensure that they could still make a profit. This enabled Sam to grow his business, cooperate with and assist smaller businesses within the community, and strategically fend off competition from those keen on setting up their own deli restaurants. Sam and his son would take the horse and cart to make their daily deliveries to these businesses. One of the merchants from the Ward who purchased these goods was grocer Maurice Factor, the father of Judge Sam Factor.

Around 1912, Sam Harris purchased 176 and 176 1/2 Queen Street West, renting the former shop to tobacconist (and the former owner) Martin Williams and the latter to a barber who lived above his shop. Harris continued to run his deli and enjoy the income that he accrued from renting the other stores. Eventually, Sam Aaron, who was in his early 20s, decided to explore other vocational possibilities. He apprenticed in Chicago at a pharmacy for a while and then travelled widely, ultimately returning to Toronto and marrying his wife, Rose. He started a factory on York Street, which made bindings for clothing, and prospered until the Depression. After that time, he worked mainly in sales. The two younger sons were not interested in taking over the business either. They eventually went on to medical school and became prominent local physicians. Without Sam Aaron’s help, his parents decided they could not run the deli business anymore. Harris decided to take over the tobacco shop that he owned next door and continue to rent out the barber shop.

Starting in 1914, Harris began renting the building and deli to Duke Graff, who managed the business with his friend Harris Feinsod. Both men were middle-aged Russian Jews who had lived in the United States before relocating to Canada. Graff had been employed as a salesman and Feinsod had worked as a saloon manager in Westchester, New York. They were likely enchanted by the idea of owning a deli restaurant, which was increasingly viewed by the community as a glamorous and lucrative enterprise, based on the success that Harris had enjoyed. The two men likely assumed that Feinsod’s skills running a saloon were an asset for them when making this transition. They retained the original name of the deli and attempted to generate the same type of success and loyalty as their predecessor. However, after a couple of years in business together, they decided to part ways. Graff continued to run the Harris Deli and Feinsod opened his own deli restaurant a few doors down at 166 Queen Street West. The only other Jewish competitor at that time was Morris Greisman, whose small deli shop was situated at 72 Chestnut Street in the Ward.

By 1921, the number of delicatessen restaurants in the city jumped to 21 operations, many of them located in walking distance from Graff’s shop. One of the new delis that was launched that year was next door at 180 1/2 Queen Street West and owned by Louis “Lazar” Levinson. Levinson had his sights set on making a name for himself in the restaurant business and went on to purchase Harris Deli from Harris. According to Sam Aaron in a 1978 interview with a family member, the Harris family sold the business to Levinson and his wife Tema for a colossal sum of $25,000. Apparently, this transaction must have included the value of Harris’s importation business, contacts, processing operation, and reputation in the city, since the assessment for the business that year by the city was just over $15,000. Duke Graff was kept on by Levinson to manage the delicatessen. Harris pocketed the profits from the sale and continued to operate his tobacco store next door.

By the mid-1920s, The Jewish deli business was booming. The Eastern European Jews in the city were beginning to attain a certain level of success and had been gradually relocating from the Ward to the more desirable neighbourhood of Kensington Market following the First World War. They also had more disposable income to spend on deli food. The proliferation of delis likely put tremendous pressure on Graff, who had enjoyed some control over the market for many years. This may have incited him to supplement his deli income by engaging in illegal practices within the shop. A Toronto Star article published on 23 March, 1923, revealed that Graff and his business partner, Louis Valensy, were raided by the morality squad. The police strategically timed their entrance for 4:30 p.m. When they entered the business, the police spotted 20 betting slips for races taking place in Tijuana, Mexico. The two deli managers were released on $1000 bail, an exorbitant sum at the time. The court date was held a month later, and the magistrate found them both guilty. Graff was given the option of paying $200 or serving three months in jail, and Valensky served seven days in jail. Soon after that incident, Levinson appears to have evicted Graff and taken over the deli at 178 Queen Street West. It was renamed Lazar’s Delicatessen and Lunch Room, and, according to a 1924 ad, served meals throughout the day and was “The Right Place to Dine.”

Lazar's Deli - 178 Queen W. - 2 May 1924

(Right: Ad for Lazar’s Delicatessen and Lunch Room, May 2, 1924. Toronto Star, page 10.)

During this decade, Levinson became a prominent restaurateur, expanding his holdings to include a number of diverse restaurants in the city including the Balfour Building Restaurant (125 Spadina Avenue) and Lazar’s Lunch (52 Church Street). Despite this success, he continued to confront increased competition from other delis in the area. Ironically, one of these competitors included the Harris Delicatessen and Lunch Room, a shop that was owned by Joe Harris (no relation to Sam Harris and his family) that opened on May 12, 1928, a few doors down from Levinson’s deli, at the corner of Queen and Simcoe Streets. Joe Harris’s restaurant was an ambitious and short-lived operation. It was notable for its promise to only serve strictly kosher products, ability to accommodate 1,000 patrons a day, and commitment to “never close.” He clearly believed that if he built an enormous venue that could cater to simchas (Jewish lifecycle celebrations) and serve certified kosher food, he would become the king of the deli operators.

Advertisement announcing the grand opening of the Harris Delicatessen and Lunch Room on 12 May 1928. Canadian Jewish Review, 11 May, 1928, p. 14.

Advertisement announcing the grand opening of the Harris Delicatessen and Lunch Room on May 12, 1928. Canadian Jewish Review, May 11, 1928, p. 14.

While most of the Jewish delis in Toronto conducted their business in a “kosher-like” manner—in that they refrained from mixing dairy and meat together or serving pork and crustaceans—only a small segment actually conformed to Jewish law. This requires the complete separation of meat and dairy (using separate refrigerators, storage and serving dishes), closing on the Sabbath, and only serving meat that was slaughtered by a shochet (a certified ritual Jewish slaughterer).

A month after the opening of Joe Harris’s deli, Louis Levinson unveiled his expanded delicatessen at 178–180 Queen Street West. He had purchased the adjacent building at 180 Queen Street West and hired the renowned local architectural firm Kaplan & Sprachman to design the more expansive and modern delicatessen. Levinson invested a total of $20,000 on the new eatery. That spring, he ran a series of ads to announce the location, along with the new name of “Lazar’s Restaurant,” and its new delivery service. After all of this fanfare by both restaurateurs, Joe Harris’s enterprise closed within the year. Harris’s vision may have been far too grand and not in line with the marketplace and priorities of local Jews. Clearly, Jewish deli aficionados during the mid- to late 1920s were not perturbed by operations like Levinson’s, which were not strictly kosher. The personality and connections of the owner, quality of their deli specialties, their location, and the ambiance, all likely played a much greater role in dictating whether or not they would succeed. In contrast, Levinson’s deli continued to thrive into the early 1930s, when he changed the name to the Old Spain Delicatessen and Restaurant. By this time, the Toronto Jewish Directory identified 41 delicatessens in 1931. This era therefore represented the start of the heyday for Jewish delis in Toronto, which continued until the 1960s.

The building the Harris Deli occupied at 178 Queen St. W. was demolished many years ago. This image was taken in 1985 by the couple’s great-grandson, Jeff Rose.

The building the Harris Deli occupied at 178 Queen Street West was demolished many years ago. This image was taken in 1985 by the couple’s great-grandson Jeff Rose.

Many Torontonians are familiar with the early delis from the postwar years that were located on Spadina Avenue, College Street, and upper Bathurst Street, such as Shopsy’s, Switzer’s, Wellt’s, and Pancer’s. Few, however, know about the origins of the city’s deli trade, commencing with Sam and Sarah Harris’s establishment. They were visionaries who brought authentic kosher deli meats to Toronto at a time when the food scene was extremely monotonous and bland. They enjoyed a monopoly for many years and produced the first corned beef sandwiches in the city, which captivated the palates of early Torontonians, particularly its Jewish residents, and started the trend of eating out. Harris was also a community leader and philanthropist, who founded the Toronto Hebrew Free Loan and served in executive roles with the Toronto Jewish Old Folks Home, the Brunswick Avenue Hebrew Free School, and the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of Toronto. Sam Harris passed away in 1936. He and Sarah built up the business, sold it at an opportune time, and inspired dozens of Jewish entrepreneurs to emulate them. Evidently, the path to success for the Harris family was paved with golden mustard, imported corned beef, and pickles.

This article is part of the exhibition From Latkes to Laffas: Jewish Toronto’s Favourite Eateries, 1900-2017 that the writer’s firm, Heritage Professionals, worked on with Beth Tzedec’s Reuben & Helene Dennis Museum. The launch of the display will take place on September 6, 2017 at Beth Tzedec Congregation. The exhibition will remain open until the end of March 2018.

Note: I would like to thank Jeff Rose, the great grandson of Sam and Sarah Harris, for his insights, materials, photos, and advice. The staff at the Ontario Jewish Archives and Toronto City Archives also should be acknowledged for their advice and support.


CORRECTION August 29, 9:56 AM: Louis Levinson’s name was corrected in the second to last paragraph. Torontoist regrets the error.

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