Few things in Los Angeles are as consistent as Canter’s, a family-owned 24-hour Jewish deli on Fairfax that’s been in business since 1931. But the pandemic has forced even the steadiest of businesses to re-evaluate the very nature of their existence. We caught up with third-generation owner Marc Canter to talk about how things have changed, how Canter’s has pivoted, and what he thinks about the future of restaurants.
On the beginning of the pandemic: “It’s like you’re juggling six balls at once while someone is throwing rocks at you. We had 150 employees, and we scaled down to about 50, which was really about 10 too many, but we had some people we didn’t want to let go, or they couldn’t get unemployment, so we took on some water. But we didn’t think it would be a year.”
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On online orders: “We’re lucky to have been on most of the third-party apps since 2012. If you’re not on them, you’re missing out because people will order from them anyway, plain and simple. I think Covid advanced it by about eight years — it’s forced people who weren’t going to order that way to catch up with technology, and it’s basically changed everything. Even when Covid is over, I think people will still be ordering online because they’ve gotten used to just touching a few buttons and having the food show up at their door. I thought our online orders would drop off when we re-opened for indoor dining a few weeks ago, but they haven’t, and now I don’t think they will.”
On financial hardships over the last year: “One of the big things is that we’re paying $20K a month for water and power. Not even gas — I just mean water and electricity. Our restaurant is huge — 2500 square feet, and it’s open 24 hours. That’s a lot of light bulbs and equipment that we have to keep running, even when the dining room is closed. For us, the monthly bills were very difficult — insurance, trash, utilities — no matter what you do, you find yourself slipping behind. We own the space, so rent wasn’t a problem, but if we didn’t, we definitely would have failed— we’re just too big.”
On changes to their business: “Catering has disappeared. No one is doing buffets. The little bit of catering we did, maybe for a memorial service, we had to individually wrap every single cookie for Covid safety. A lot of our orders were people calling to send food to Cedars-Sinai [hospital], maybe they had a relative with Covid, or they wanted to feed the doctors and nurses, so you have to be extra safe. We used to cater office lunches, too — but now, with everyone working remote, maybe forever, those 500-person orders aren’t coming back.”
On popular (and not-so-popular) menu items: “Our matzoh ball soup orders nearly doubled — it’s comfort food. And we’re still selling a lot of Reubens. But we did have to limit our menu and trim the things that aren’t big sellers, like kasha knishes, or stuffed cabbage, baked apples: stuff that’s all made by hand and goes bad quickly. Some of our suppliers went out of business, too. Of course, some people are upset, but you have to cut what’s not a necessity.”
Thoughts for the future: “My prediction is that things will come back to about half of what they used to be for restaurants, from a capacity perspective. We used to get a lot of tourists because we’re a landmark restaurant. Are there tourists anymore? At least 20 percent of our business before was people eating here for the first time. Now I’m pretty sure that 98 percent of our customers have been here before. In the future, I think all restaurants should make sure their kitchen is big enough to handle an endless amount of to-go business, and dine-in will be minimal.”
A final note on business hours: “Canter’s used to be the train station — you could go any time. For most of the last year, we kept things going 24 hours because there are still people who will place an online order at 1 a.m., and there are still people who will walk in for a midnight snack and take it to-go. When we re-opened [for indoor dining] three weeks ago, we said we’ll open at 6 a.m. and close at midnight. But I’ve noticed that after about 9:30 p.m., we get very little dine-in business. There are no movies, no bars, no clubs— we used to get a crowd after those things, people looking for a nosh after the show.
During earthquakes, riots, etc., we’ve never closed. The show must go on; we find a way, we make it work. We’re good at working under stressful conditions. But this time, I threw in the towel and said, ‘We have enough going with online orders, walk-ins, and curbside pickups.’ We’re doing the best with what we have.”
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