Canter’s Deli vows to ‘never disappear’

Co-owner Jacqueline Canter opens up about what it takes to keep the famed Jewish deli in business.

people pose with president in a deli

On the map for almost 100 years, Canter’s Deli has withstood coronavirus closures, riots, earthquakes and, in recent years, growing antisemitism.

As Jewish delis become a thing of the past, this culinary time capsule vows to “never disappear.”

“This is a home away from home. I’m on a first-name basis with my customers. I know exactly what they want,” Canter’s Deli co-owner Jacqueline Canter said. “Some people drive three or four hours to come here. Obviously, we’re doing something right.”

Located on Fairfax Avenue, once the center of Jewish life in Los Angeles, the decor retains a distinct 1950s feel, with red vinyl booths, black-and-white checkered floors, and old-fashioned jukeboxes playing classic hits.

But the real star of Canter’s is the food. The menu features classic deli fare, such as corned beef, matzo ball soup and challah. But the must-try item is the pastrami sandwich, the meat piled high, served on rye bread with a side of pickles.

Canter said working seven days a week is the secret to keeping the restaurant running. In 2020, the pandemic nearly sank a staple of the L.A. community.

“They closed us down,” Canter said. “Some of these people have worked here for over 50 years. Having to call people up and tell them that you’re going to be laid off, it was a very painful experience for me.”

Overnight, Canter sent about 70% of its staff home. She called it “devastating.”

“We treat our customers like family, and we treat our workers like family. So, for instance, if they need a loan for something, we loan the money, whatever it is that they need, we do it,” she said.

“Most people that work here have never stopped working here. They work here until they die.”

Loyalty and dedication run through the veins of Greg Dovell, who has served generations of Canter customers, in his 37 years at the deli.

“The best illustration I can think of is when I first started here, people were bringing in their kids who were literally sitting in highchairs,” he said. “Now those kids are bringing in their kids who are sitting in highchairs.”

The pandemic posed a grave challenge for Canter’s, whose traditional dining room experience was traded for take-out and delivery only.

“It was very odd to come in because the fluorescent lights in the dining room were turned off and it was very eerie to walk in and see the place in darkness,” Dovell said. “Usually, it’s such a beehive of activity — but we got through it.”

Canter’s endurance goes back to core principles: feeding the hungry and selling high-quality food at low prices.

“I remember coming here when I was a kid, I used to work behind the cash register stamping parking tickets when I was two years old,” Canter said. “I remember my grandparents very well and they were very hard workers.”

Every day, Canter’s feeds homeless people and donates leftovers to shelters.

“I do this because that’s what my grandparents did. They taught me to feed people who [cannot] feed themselves,” Canter said. “They were here during the Depression and the stock market crash when everybody lost all their money, so they saw hard times.”

The deli’s storied run goes back to 1924 in Jersey City. Seven years later, Canter’s followed Jewish migrants West and opened a store in Boyle Heights. In the next decade, Canter’s, along with the area’s Jewish population, landed a permanent home in Fairfax.

“My grandfather bought the building that we’re sitting in, which was Kohn’s Deli, then he got a parking lot in the corner. And then he got the bar, which we call the kibbutz, from which a lot of people have been discovered,” Canter said.

Canter’s is more than just a deli; it’s a community hub. Over the years, it has become a gathering place for musicians, writers, and artists. The deli has hosted performances by The Doors, Joni Mitchell and Guns N’ Roses. It’s not uncommon to see someone typing away on a computer or chatting up another customer, soaking up the creative energy of the space.

“This is a city where everything changes overnight,” Dovell said. “And we stay the same, and people like that — they appreciate that. It gives them more of a sense of permanence and sense of stability.”

The first-class treatment customers receive goes beyond the deli’s dining room. Jacqueline Canter has even checked up on a customer currently in the hospital.

“I’ve visited him three times already. I want to make sure he gets better,” Canter said.

Taking care of employees, Canter said, also means holding them accountable. On her first day as manager, Canter fired a dishwasher for drinking beer.

“I was a very mild-mannered person when I got here. And now I’d say, you become kind of a ballbuster. Because people will take advantage of you if you’re not careful,” Canter said.

Slowly, but surely, Canter’s welcomed back more customers and rehired most of its staff. In the summer of 2020, another challenge came knocking on the deli’s front door.

Protestors flooded Fairfax — outraged over the murder of George Floyd.

“When I say other businesses, I mean four doors up from Canter’s –– [were] being looted. The hair salon was being looted; Diamond was being looted. The whole neighborhood was being looted,” Canter said. “One lady came in here and needed first aid [because] her eyes were burning. I basically had to become a nurse that day.”

Tensions boiled over between protestors and police. However, Canter’s found a way to keep the rioters at bay.

“I was on the news that day because everybody was afraid to go out of their house and I was out there in the middle of the street, giving out salami, cheese and water,” Canter said. “The fact that we were here giving them food and water — they did not loot us.”

If pandemic-forced closures and violent riots weren’t enough, Canter’s has grappled with another threat: growing antisemitism.

Greater Los Angeles counties reported 182 acts of antisemitism in 2021, the Anti-Defamation League said, a 217% increase from 2017.

The “hatred” towards Jewish people, Canter said, has hit the deli close to home. About five years ago, a person painted an antisemitic trope on the murals right outside the restaurant.

“Whoever’s antisemitic — they don’t have to come here. That’s all I’m going to say. I don’t want them here,” Canter asserted. “You don’t like Jewish people — don’t come to Canter’s, because we’re Jewish.”

Her message has resonated with customers like Logan Barth, 19, who’s been coming to Canters for eight years.

“Growing up in Sacramento, I didn’t really have a Jewish community, and simply walking into Canter’s for the first time, I felt the Jewish community I didn’t have growing up,” Barth said.

The food, Barth said, is one of the last reasons why he frequents the deli so much.

“I come for the community that it gives me, simply being in the Fairfax District and being around people that are like me and have the same culture as me is just really special.” “Canter’s truly is a staple of this community,” Barth said.

Looking ahead, Canter said she’s determined to keep the deli’s legacy alive.

“I think [my grandpa] would be very proud of myself for working seven days a week like he did and carrying on his legacy and his recipes,” Canter said. “You can’t control anything, but if I have it my way, it’ll go on for another hundred years.”

In 100 years though, the deli will need new leadership — a decision, Canter said, is “to be determined.” The 62-year-old co-owner and her brother, Marc, each have two kids. None have stepped up to the plate, yet.

But right now, it’s the hospitality, Canter said, that keeps regulars wanting more.

“We provide a very unique thing with a lot of other delis going out of business,” Canter said. “Canter’s is never, ever going to disappear. My brother and I work seven days a week. We have withstood riots. We have withstood earthquakes. And we will be here another 100 years.”