The Deli Lama

Sadie Katz Deli is not Glenn Walter’s first business, and most likely won’t be his last

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

sadie_katz_0211_jc-0113Glenn Walter opened Sadie Katz Delicatessen about three and a half years ago in the space formerly occupied by the Oasis Diner on Bank Street in Burlington. The authentic Jewish deli marked a return to his love of cooking, following careers in real estate development and craft brewing.

It doesn’t take long talking to Glenn Walter to figure out that there’s more there than meets the eye. “I always have a bunch of small businesses in the back of my brain, almost fully actualized,” he says. “Then I try to find a spot that fits the imaginary one. I look at every single building that becomes available. When the Oasis became available, it exactly fit the image in my brain and was just what I wanted.”

Walter bought the former Oasis Diner on Oct. 1, 2007, from longtime owners the Lines family. He ran it as the Oasis until December, then closed for a period and opened Sadie Katz Delicatessen on Feb. 24, 2008.

Not a lot changed in terms of decor — the sleek, 1950s rail-car diner atmosphere remains, along with its upholstered booths and stools, which line the Formica-covered counter that still sports boomerang shapes so typical of the era.

In terms of menu, though, things are different. Sadie Katz is a genuinely serious, bona fide Jewish deli, and Walter aims to keep it that way.

This wasn’t his first foray into food service. He began working at restaurants at age 16 in his hometown of Morristown, N.J., “for spending money, summer breaks, and to help pay for school expenses.”

In 1985, after graduating from the University of Southern New Hampshire with a degree in economics, he approached one of the principals of a real estate development company in his hometown for work. “I was just a young guy out of college,” he says, “and I had some ideas. I always had a good work ethic, was conscientious; and if you work hard and you’re honest, you tend to get work. We did shopping malls, renovating and leasing out shopping centers as we were purchasing them.”

It didn’t take long for him to realize that he didn’t really like real estate development very much. He left for Vermont in September 1987 “to be a ski bum with a friend of mine at Sugarbush.”

He stayed until the end of the season and then traveled around Europe for a while with his soon-to-be wife. They lived in England for six or seven months, then moved back to the United States and settled in the San Francisco area.

He found work at a small American-style restaurant — “one of those California cuisine places called Restaurant Matisse,” he says — where he honed his cooking skills.

The chef he worked under was a home brewer, Walter says. “Right after it became legal, I started doing that.”

When a person from Albany, N.Y., came west seeking help to open a restaurant, Walter returned east and joined the venture. “I was working with that and working at a home brew shop in the Albany area called Hennessey Home Brew on my day off,” he says.

He entered a home brew contest where he met the late Greg Noonan, the founder of Vermont Pub & Brewery, who had gone to Albany as judge. “He was opening Vermont Pub at the time, so I moved up here and became his brewer.”

Walter stayed at Vermont Pub from 1989 to 1995, when he left to open Three Needs, a brew pub on College Street, which he still owns. Next, he opened the Monkey House in Winooski, which he sold four years ago. Sadie Katz had been in his mind’s eye a long time.

He envisioned an authentic deli like the ones he knew growing up in New Jersey. “It’s the food I grew up on and loved eating,” he says. “Honestly, I was hoping that someone else was going to do it. I put the word out there that I was interested, spoke to a bunch of people over the years who had plans to open one up, but nothing happened.”

Walter pays close attention to details and is open to ideas. Authenticity is paramount. After being complimented on the chopped chicken liver, he replies, “That’s Mrs. Silver’s recipe. Her husband, Lee, came in when we first opened. He said, ‘My wife has the best chicken liver recipe.’ I said, ‘Tell her to bring it in.’”

This is typical of Walter’s approach. “Glenn is a very outgoing and upbeat person,” says Rick Worcester, a local contractor and friend, who met him at Three Needs. “He’s got a very huge heart and seems like he would do anything for anybody. He’s a very community-minded person.”

There were hurdles. “When I opened this place up, I sampled every single item I have on my menu and bought the best I could find,” he says. “We bring up pastrami from Katz’s Deli in New York, because that’s my favorite, and Carnegie’s corned beef, because I think it’s the best. I searched for rye bread in New Jersey and found All Round, because they do the rye for Carnegie Deli. Pickles are difficult — they come out of the Bronx from Mr. Pickle.”

He also imports H&H bagels from Manhattan, but can’t get the company’s bialys. He thinks it has something to do with the onions.

The real challenge was finding a distributor willing to take those products on, he says. “Distributors are huge conglomerates, and trying to get a billion-dollar company to take on a new product that they may sell a couple hundred a week of is really difficult.”

Take the whitefish and salmon, he says. “They’re from Acme on Gem Street in Brooklyn. Acme agreed to bring the fish up to Boston, and Ray’s seafood here agreed to drive down to Boston and bring it up. It makes it more expensive. I could just go to Costco, but if you’re trying to do it the right way, there’s only one way to do it.”

In the beginning, no distributor was willing to carry Walter’s 50 cases of bread and five cases of brisket, but after six months, when he could give distributors numbers on what he was doing, he was able to hook up with one. His prime distributor right now is Sysco.

“We make everything in-house except what we bring from New York,” he says. “Meredith Mann — a college friend of my wife’s — we use her mom’s matzoh ball soup recipe.”

He’s referring to his current wife, Stacey Steinmetz, whom he married in 2001. “She was the first employee of Magic Hat Brewery,” says Walter. They met through Bob Johnson, the co-founder of Magic Hat.

The deli is named after Stacey’s grandmother. “Some people have museums named after them; some, libraries. My mother couldn’t be happier to have a deli named after her,” quipped Stacey’s mother when she heard about the deli.

He and Stacey live in Burlington with their daughter, Samantha, 6. Walter’s older daughter, Alison, attends St. Lawrence University.

At the deli, some things are on track, he says. “Our in-house or dine-in sales are where they’re supposed to be; where we’re struggling is our takeout business. We’re coming up with a whole new takeout menu — will be doing lunch boxes. That should be out in a couple of weeks.”

Having only 36 seats is difficult, he says. “Half of our business comes in between 11:30 and 1. Trying to make all your money in that one and a half to two hours is difficult.” Weekend days, when the deli serves brunch, are busy until 3.

He’s trying to build a breakfast following, but confesses it’s difficult competing with the likes of Penny Cluse, Sneakers, and Magnolia, which do such a good job. The next move will be to open up late-night, most likely from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., as “an alternative to driving drunk down to Denny’s,” he says. “We’ll have an abbreviated late-night menu — still deli food, but less expensive breakfast items.”

Walter’s not really sure where he’s going next. “I’m always open to ideas,” he says. “Ideas are always grinding away up there. I’m looking for every opportunity, for the combination of physical and imaginary to come together.

“I always was in the food service business, and I enjoy the pace — the adrenaline rush when you get busy, the gratification you get because at the end of the day it’s done. In the business world, projects just go on and on, and it’s hard to get that satisfaction of being done.

“I enjoy plumbing for the same reason,” he adds. “You go in with a plan, then make it a reality, and step back and say, ‘Ah!’ So minute by minute: ordered; made; done; gratification; all day.” •