Revision, September 15, 2002
Winter, 2002
Due August 15, 2002
On Managing column
Library Administration & Management

A Zabarian Experience
John Lubans

This column on Zabar’s ( “the world’s best food store” joins the stories I’ve written about the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Duke Women’s Basketball Team, and Opera Australia. How Saul Zabar leads a staff of over 250 speaks to all leaders, in libraries and out. In preparing this column I charted out the similarities between a retail operation like Zabar’s and libraries. We match up across 18 aspects like staffing, service desks, inventory, and uncertainty about the future. Apart from our not making a profit nor paying taxes, we are alike in most ways. Like a library, Zabar’s provides food for the soul. And, as a friend and New York native once told me: “If major corporations could organize themselves as well as Zabar’s runs their fish department, American business would benefit greatly.”

I’ve been a Zabar’s customer for over 15 years. Every trip to New York, I stock up with cheese, fish, breads, coffee, cheesecake and other quintessentials of civilized living.

I love the place for its consistency, good taste and price. Why else would I shlepp two or three bags (each emblazoned with a bright orange ZABAR’S back to North Carolina? I am not alone in my obsession – 35,000 people a week squeeze in through the front doors (under the faux Tudor beams and plaster façade) to join the crowd. Even the most assertive New Yorker tolerates the occasional shopping cart bump or unintentional elbow in the narrow aisles – paths really - through a fantasyland of culinary delight.  Aggression, it seems, is left at the door – the smells and sights of olives, balsamic vinegars, cheese, salmon, bagels, croissants, coffee and mountains of chocolate pacify us.

For years, I’ve noticed the same faces behind Zabar’s service counters.  Zabar’s retains many long-term staff in spite of a highly competitive environment in a notoriously expensive place to live and raise a family. When I ask about staff turnover, I’m told that most people who start to work at Zabar’s tend to stay. All the managers started at lower level positions and were promoted internally. Often their first job at Zabar’s was as a temporary cashier during the holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.

Zabar’s lives up to its pledge of good food at a reasonable price. Throughout the store, prices are below those of other large NY specialty food stores and well below gourmet food shops in North Carolina. In a business with alleged microscopic margins, Zabar’s currently increases it’s payroll 8% per year and pays staff bonuses, along with the usual other benefits. Our profession’s current focus on low salaries in libraries underscores this severe restriction on monetarily rewarding deserving staff. Yet, Zabar’s generosity requires a wide income stream. One of Saul’s worries is sustaining compensation levels over time.

I met Saul Zabar early one weekday morning at the customer service desk for our first interview. It’s the command post, battered by an unceasing flow of vendors, customers, job applicants, deliverymen, and maintenance people. Saul was dressed, as always I was to discover, in slacks and a sweatshirt with a small Zabar’s logos. He is in his early 70s, a fine-featured and silver haired man.

During our tour of the store (actually five separate stores cobbled together with narrow passageways) I get a sense of who Saul is. He knows everything about the store, from the cellar to the rooftops. Saul, brimming with ideas, routinely calls the store at 4AM and leaves each manager long detailed telephone messages about what needs changing, fixing, or fine tuning. “Managing by walking about” is spontaneous with Saul. Library directors who regularly talk with staff and users are doing likewise.

While declaring himself “too anal at times”, Saul somehow avoids the pitfalls of the micromanager. He is neither a bottleneck in decision making nor a mistrusting, staff confidence buster. I’d term him an involved leader. Besides making all weekly tasting and purchasing decisions about tons of salmon, sturgeon, caviar and coffee, he runs interference throughout the store. Some areas receive more attention, others less, depending on the ability and experience of the manager in charge of that department.

He can be a curmudgeon. Well before my writing project, one morning, I was distracted from my shopping by his loudly and angrily declaring to the floor manager, “This is not acceptable”.

Saul explained to me his outbursts only happen after fair warning about what has to change. It’s not a lack of respect – rather it is impatience with something not going right. Saul’s focus is always on what needs fixing. And sometimes, for Saul, the words have to be said loudly. On occasion there are volatile results. One of the two floor managers has stormed out over differences with Saul.  Each time, after reconciliation, he returns to the job he loves.

I was on the receiving end of a mild sample of Saul’s straight talk. He’d taken the time to read a couple of my columns and told me what he thought: “You’re long winded, you take your time getting to your point, but, yeah, when you finally get there it is good”.

I admire this forthrightness. I come from the academic library world where too many things needing to be said are left unspoken. When unresolved conflicts pile up over time in a library, passive aggression becomes our non-communicative communication.

Saul is indefatigable in exploring and looking for the different and the unusual, from new food products to ways to display food. He experiments with food combinations even though he admits he “almost never comes up with a success” His explanation for why he experiments is worth putting up in Broadway lights: “Anyone can do it right”, Saul says. “Guess what would happen when something you are not supposed to do comes out good?”

A manager’s perspective:

Harold Horowytz is the deli counter manager. He retired nine years ago, after 28 years at Zabar’s.

But, he’s not really retired - from Thanksgiving to New Year’s he leaves New Bern, North Carolina and returns to manage the deli counter. He takes over, seamlessly, from Frankie Cabrera, the deli manager for the rest of the year. The deli department offers salamis, knishes, and 200 freshly prepared  entrees ranging from turkey meatloaf and garlic shrimp to Sicilian seafood salad.

I’ve seen and marveled at the workings of Zabar’s deli and fish counters: customers take a number, wait in a crowd for their number to come up, and the countermen (in these two cases, no women) prepare individual orders, slicing, weighing, packaging and pricing. The workweek used to be  from 72 - 84 hours. Harold still calls it “a grind”, at 60 hours a week, explaining “it’s a retail business…” Yet, he loves the work: “Zabar’s is a good store, with lots of action”. Under Saul’s administration, the work week for most staff now is five days, between 9-12 hours per day. The managers tend to work the longer hours.

Harold welcomes me into his “office”: the end of the deli case near shelves filled with freshly baked knishes, empanadas and strudels fresh from the ovens just around the corner. At seventy-three, he looks a robust 65 underneath his baseball cap.

When I ask about the consistent goodness of what they serve, Harold is not the first Zabar’s staffer to tell me about the legendary Mr. Klein, a former partner and daily operations manager with Saul and Stanley Zabar. Mr. Klein (always Mister) was a stickler for quality.  He helped instill high standards, and while no longer a partner his story is the organization’s shorthand for keeping the unstinting quality tradition alive.  When Saul recently refused to sell lobster salad for four days because it did not taste right, he was being like Mr. Klein.  The salad was passable but not up to what Zabar’s is about.

Is there a “Mr. Klein” in your library tradition? I’ve been fortunate in having one of those in my career – her standard for giving the best reference service to each library user lived on for several years after her retirement.

Another quality enhancer for Harold: “You buy the best” and freshest products. And, it helps that Boris Bassin, the executive chef, is “fussy”, always checking with a military precision for taste and freshness. Those 200 deli items behind the glass display cases come from the army of cooks and food preparers that Boris directs.

As we talk, a deliveryman rolls in several boxes of tongue and pastrami from a New York manufacturer. Before signing off on the invoice, Harold checks the shipment, opening each box, rifling through the wrapped tongues and pastramis. Frankie joins him and they feel the tongues (shaped like pink 5-pound sacks of sugar), one by one, holding each in both hands, probing with gentle thumb pressure for consistency and texture. One is undercooked; the others are OK, but not as good as they could be. “This is shit” Harold says to the deliveryman.  The deliveryman bears up fairly well under the blunt talk, then makes excuses about how the ovens were not working like they should. Harold acknowledges the excuse but crosses off the undercooked tongues on the invoice – no sale.

Pastrami is next. Frankie and Harold scrutinize each, but spend less time on them, telling me, “It’s hard to kill a pastrami!” Still, you can cheat by adding water. Some manufacturers do pump in water. They don’t get business from Zabar’s.

Harold ends what’s been a quality lesson: “Take your tongue and get your ass out of here”. Harold’s crustiness is well intentioned, half jest, half reprimand. It’s tough guy talk that makes the point to the young man and to the manufacturer.  Afterwards Harold tells me, “Usually this company makes a nice product”.

How well you do at Zabar’s is up to you, Harold believes.  “A lot of people who work here care about what they do, they care about the store”. It’s one reason why Harold comes back every year.

Saul and the managers have a policy of helping staff. When they heard that loan sharks were getting at entry level staff, often first generation immigrants, Zabar’s put a note in each pay envelope about interest free loans. There’s now some $70,000 out on loan. Saul’s only been stung once.

Harold elaborates on staff loyalty: “You can make a living working at Zabar’s. Zabar’s pay scale is a lot better than supermarkets. If you want overtime, you can get it. You can make money. In fact, managers can do nicely”. Zabar’s is a retail business with simple business rules: you get customers in your store, treat them nicely, and bend over backwards if you have to, and, get the money. Zabar’s regular customers are knowledgeable and demanding. Everyone wants the best cut – from the middle. But, if you berate a customer, forget the money. Harold tells me there is no pleasing some customers. You cannot do enough to satisfy them but you have to overlook that – it’s a retail business!

For Harold, Saul’s daily involvement in every part of the store is “As it should be. Saul’s an owner. Can’t blame him for that”.  And, everyone ultimately answers to Saul.

 “Calling all hungry shoppers…Come to the fish counter…” , a New York accented voice calls out over the in-store loud speakers. On a cold January day, it is the first of many such announcements, interrupting the classical music overhead. The words trigger in me a

better understanding about what Zabar’s is and how Saul derives joy from what he does.  “There’s a romance about what we do - we have a modern guise but we really do things the way they were done, 40, 50, 75 even 200 years ago”. And, Saul’s leadership is illuminated by his belief that Zabar’s is a repository for a tradition that may not exist much longer. It’s a tradition he took up at his father’s death in 1950.

An ever present concern for Saul is Zabar’s “running out of programs”, ways to augment the necessary cashflow to support the enterprise and all its people. Likewise, I wonder about our future, about our transcending the romantic perception about libraries that hails from the Carnegie libraries era and the possibility of libraries “running out of programs” or that reasons for being will diminish as libraries find their way in the new century.

Note: the author thanks, with admiration, Saul Zabar and the several Zabar’s staff for their sharing with him their pride and expertise in their work. Special thanks go to Rachel Zabar whose film-in-production about her father inspired my thoughts on the Zabarian experience.

Author’s note: John Lubans latest workshop for librarians is Teamwork in the Library. E-mail: