Whaddayawant, lady?" Harold Horowytz shouts across an array of cold cuts, salads, hot dishes, and pâtés. "To say hello to my boyfriend," his customer replies flirtatiously. "When did you get back? How's your wife?"
"She's getting younger," Horowytz jokes, deftly slicing brisket and wrapping it neatly in deli paper quicker than you can say, "Gimme half a pound."
Horowytz, 81 (pictured in 1995), is in his element. During the busy holiday season, he returns from semi-retirement in North Carolina to manage the deli counter of Zabar's, the specialty foods store in New York City where he's worked since 1974. Back then, the deli case was only as long as his -outstretched arms. Today it's more than 40 feet across and contains more than 500 different foods. Saul Zabar, the second-generation owner of the 75-year-old family business, says the success of the store's highest-grossing department owes in part to Horowytz. Over the years, Horowytz has cut jokes and meats with equal skill, sourcing and preparing an ever expanding range of foods. He was the guy who kept suppliers on their toes, rejecting pastrami that was unevenly cured or too salty or fatty. He was also the innovator who suggested new ways to move underselling products like chilled smoked ham. "I said, 'Let's sell 'em warm,'" recalled Horowytz. "We now sell 60 or 70 a week."
In the 1930s, when Zabar's was founded, New York City was home to some 1,500 kosher delis, where Jewish immigrants purveyed the foods of their Eastern European origins, raising their children to carry on the businesses. "When I was a kid," Saul Zabar says, "there was a deli every three to four blocks." Today, there is only a handful across the city. "The cost of rent is too high," says Zabar, and seasoned pros like Horowytz—who started in the business as a boy at his family's grocery stores—are increasingly rare assets. But Zabar hasn't had to coax this deli man back behind the counter; Horowytz returns of his own accord every holiday season. "I miss the action," he says with a shrug.