The framed newspaper clipping announcing the golden anniversary of Decarie Boulevard’s landmark Jewish deli is yellowed and faded. It’s poetic proof that Snowdon Deli has been around a long time. A shade under seven decades, in fact. Owner Ian Morantz recently sat down for Classics Week to talk about a family legacy that began with his father and uncles in 1946.
What are your earliest memories of this place?
Coming in as a little child, having lunch. I’d be visiting my father, Abe. My mother would bring us. We’d get to see my father for a few hours. In the early days, 60, 80 hours a week was normal. They couldn’t get away with less.
In the beginning it wasn’t really packed but you know, they had their clientele. I think part of the success was, though west of here there were a few streets that had some Jews — you’d go into Hampstead and there were no Jews at all — Côte Saint-Luc didn’t exist, it was farmland and so it was tough. But they had Circle Road and a bit of Westmount. The established Jews that had some money, they came. This is the route to go up north so the Jews who had a country house would stop here and fill up a box or two of food to take up.
"I was always determined not to be here as a career."
This was when exactly?
I was born in 1950. So the early 50s. By the time I could actually take a bus and come here on my own I must have been 11 or 12. I would sit at the cash with my mother and she’d show me how to take cash. Or I’d pack potato salad and coleslaw in one-pound containers when it was busy just to get ‘em ready and speed things up. I was hands on pretty early. But I was always determined not to be here as a career. I had a long period of time where I really, really had no intention of coming in.
So what happened?
I did all kinds of other jobs. I was going to school, drove a taxi for a bit. Then I tried to become an electrician. I was taking a course at Dawson and thought it would be an easy fit. That was just before the Olympics. They were building this huge Olympic village and there were a lot of electricians working, soon to be out of a job once the project was complete. I couldn’t get in to get a union card. So I worked with an electrician for a while and learned the trade. It was fun but I saw I wasn’t going to get a permit so I gave up. Then my wife got pregnant and I figured I needed a steady job. So I approached my father and he said ‘Come on in, you start tomorrow.’
How did he react when you told him you wanted to work here?
I think he was happy. He was definitely happy. We always got along. It was hard because there were three brothers. He had two brothers that were in the business. One was a partner, the founding partner with my dad. And he was tough, my uncle Joe. It’s not that he was so bad but he didn’t know how to say ‘thank you’ or ‘good job.’ Two things that a young person would appreciate hearing. An employee would appreciate hearing. I try to do that now. Thank people, for whatever they do. It’s a small thing but it means something.
The other uncle, Phil, the youngest brother, he was mostly my mentor. He was the one that I worked with the most. He taught me how to take orders, how to make orders, how to handle shiva houses.
Can you talk a little about that part of the business?
It’s interesting. We would always get the shiva order and just send it out. Once in a while we would get there and the customer would say, ‘We don’t need this, I just had something come in from Brown Derby. Take it back, we’ll call you when we need it.’ It was very hard because then you’re stuck and lose a lot. So we just realized that instead of just sending it out, we’ll call them up. ‘We have an order coming, is this good, do you want that?’ And that way they can fine-tune it or change it. I would get letters after thanking me for how we handled the shiva house, how we handled the orders. It was comforting and that really made a big difference.
"I would get letters after thanking me for how we handled the shiva house, how we handled the orders."
There’s an art to it.
Well that’s true but part of it is I’m a blabbermouth. I talk a lot. But when I talk to people I can sense when something’s wrong or not. There are times when a death in the family is very tragic and there are times when it’s an elderly relative, a 95-year-old, and it’s sad, it’s a loss, but it doesn’t have to be so, so somber, you know?
Are shiva orders still a big part of the business?
Yes. I mean, there are people dying every day. Just look in the papers. I think there were eleven announcements by Paperman’s between yesterday, today and tomorrow. So they still call us. I had two this morning and another going out this afternoon.
What was the transition like from your father and uncles to yourself and John Agelopoulos?
Well I took over 18 years or so ago with one of my oldest employees, John. He started in the back as a dishwasher. Anytime he had a free moment he’d come up front and watch what was going on behind the counter. He was really interested. John’s ten years older than I am. He started working here when he was 18.
He’s a Snowdon Deli lifer.
Well he left a couple of times. He and his brother opened a place on Westminster, a snack bar. Built it up, sold it. Came back in between and then they decided to buy a snack bar on Ferrier in one of the big buildings. They kept that a couple of years, built up a good business, sold it and came back here. Then he went to California for a couple of years. He always left on good terms, so the door was always open to come back. And his brother Sam, who also worked here, has Centre Street Deli in Toronto with my uncle Joe’s daughter, Cheryl.
How did your father ultimately decide to pass the torch to you?
Around the time when I was thinking of taking over, my father got ill. He had a minor stroke and was recovering and then all of a sudden started showing signs of dementia. His brother Phil had Alzheimer’s and was out at that point. Joe and my father were still here but he started to regress rapidly and we didn’t know what was going on. His shirt would be buttoned crooked. When he saw the doctor he was diagnosed with prostate cancer but that wasn’t the worst of it. They put him through a CAT scan and found a baseball-sized tumour in his head. All in a six month timespan. He never once said he had a headache or any discomfort. Everything was fine. Yet he’d try to do a simple task and couldn’t. Just repetitively missing and not realizing. He’d come in for two hours at a time by taxi from Côte Saint-Luc, look around and then leave.
"And that was the moment I realized I lost him. And it was only three or four weeks later that he passed away."
But one night he was here at ten o’clock, long after we’d closed. My friend’s driving by and he sees him standing outside on the steps. He called out to him and asked what he was doing. ‘I’m waiting for John,’ my dad said. John would have been opening in the morning. It’s ten o’clock at night. ‘Come, I’ll take you home,’ my friend told him. ‘Nope, I’m waiting for John.’ He had one white shoe and one black shoe on. He looked like a homeless person standing on the steps here. So my friend just drove around the corner so it didn’t seem obvious and kept his eye on him. He called me up and said, ’What should I do?’ So I headed over there and tried to reason with my dad. He finally got in the car. And that was the moment I realized I lost him. And it was only three or four weeks later that he passed away.
This was at a point when we had started the paperwork to transition the business. We slugged it out. My uncle Joe stayed on for a year or so after my father died. John bought my uncle’s shares and I bought my father’s shares.
"So it’s not that any one of them is going to kill us. But it chips away."
How would you sum up the business over the subsequent decades?
The last year or so has been better. But several years previous...it’s been tough. It’s been hard. It just slowly, slowly eroded. You have every little bakery, bread shops, with a little deli counter. Or bagel places made themselves into small delis. So it’s not that any one of them is going to kill us. But it chips away. It makes it a little harder. In the old days it was us or Brown Derby. But we still get a lot of old, regular customers that come in, with their grandchildren. Sometimes we even have four generations at a table. Once in a while five. But that’s a rarity.
Can you talk a bit about the menu and how it’s changed since your father and uncles ran Snowdon Deli?
We’ve broadened the menu over the years considerably. It used to be much more restrictive. But people’s tastes change. Breakfast is a big item now. We have the full breakfast all day long. And we make it a nice plate. We’ve added more salads too. The Greek salad was John’s idea. They had it at Centre in Toronto so we borrowed the recipe. It’s a good Greek salad. Because it’s a meal. But the hot smoked meat is still cut by hand. And it’s still our number one bestseller. I have to say, a lot of people are buying a pound or two pounds of it at a time now. That was rare in the old days. Now a lot more people do it. I don’t know why that’s changed.
I have one daughter here, Toby. She’s been here a number of years now. I just brought in Phil’s grandson, Hart, as a junior partner. And my present partners are John’s daughter, Sophy, and his son-in-law, John [all three are pictured in the gallery below]. So it’s the younger generation taking over.
"Sorry, we’re not changing."
And your customers?
I have a lot more French Canadians than I had before. It’s increased tremendously. But look, there’s a fella sitting there who’s been here for as long as I can remember. So a lot of regulars. And generations of the same family. When Brown Derby dropped out of the scene we got their customers. And it drove us nuts because they were so picky. Some of them we just couldn’t serve. But a lot that used to go there still come to us and that’s good. The ones that got used to our ways, good. The ones that didn’t, sorry, we’re not changing.