Zaidy's Deli has been a gathering place for Cherry Creek residents and members of the Jewish community since 1992, when it moved to 121 East First Avenue from its original location in downtown Denver. Since owners Gerard Rudofsky and his son, Jason, announced the closing of Zaidy's on October 21, they've received hundreds of messages of support and gratitude for the many great experiences and delicious meals served over the decades.
According to Jason Rudofsky, running the 135-seat restaurant had become increasingly difficult in the changing Cherry Creek neighborhood, and the pandemic made everything more chaotic — from staffing to food prep to payroll and accounting. "I'm not only the manager; sometimes I'm the cook or the host or the waiter," he says of the past seven months of partial shutdowns, restricted seating (which left the dining room of Zaidy's at about 25 or 30 percent capacity), disruptions to the supply chain and employee layoffs.
Here's what else Rudofsky says about his life at Zaidy's, the difficulty of closing and the possibilities for the future:
Westword: How did Zaidy's Deli get its start?
Jason Rudofsky: My father started the restaurant in 1985 at 14th and Tremont, and it just wasn't a viable location. It was almost all courthouse business, and nobody was staying in that part of downtown for dinner in those days. So he moved it to its current location when I was still in college, in 1992. We also had a second location downtown for a few years, but I was never in favor of that location. Being downtown is such a different kind of business. If you're not on the 16th Street Mall or Larimer, dinner business is tough, and nobody was going there for breakfast.
Have you always worked at the restaurant, starting back when you were a kid?
I was fifteen when my father opened Zaidy's. I was never going to go into the restaurant business; I never even thought about it. But my father had a business partner when the restaurant first opened, and when they parted ways, there was an opening for a general manager. So I started there in ’93 or ’94, after college...and I worked on the line, I ran the kitchen — and I loved it. I knew that everything I made was exactly the way I'd make it for my kids.
Was the decision to close Zaidy's based on the pandemic and the current business restrictions?
We've been in the building for 28 and a half years, but it has been a struggle lately. We only had a couple of months left on the lease, and we were looking at renewing for maybe a year. The building is dilapidated; it's the only property left on First Avenue that hasn't been rebuilt. We have our own parking lot, but it's small. The lack of parking and the construction has been really bad. Even people who live across the street or in the neighborhood can barely get across the street.
When COVID hit, 70 percent of our business was in-house, but since then, nobody's ordering 25 or 30 boxed lunches for business meetings anymore. Nobody's coming in for business lunches. In the Jewish community, people would come in big groups after funerals and for shiva, and that stopped.
Being down 60 percent for six months becomes exhausting; you bleed and bleed. I couldn't uphold the standards that we had before. We couldn't get the same pastrami or as much of it, and we couldn't get other ingredients. We'd make blintzes and we couldn't sell them, so we'd have to throw them out, and then someone would order blintzes and we'd have to tell them we were out.
It was a tough call, but in the long run, it was the right thing to do.
Have your customers been supportive?
The outpouring has just been overwhelming; I was stunned. After we posted it [on Facebook], the news reached 50,000 people, and we got hundreds of comments — everyone remembering their kids' special events and their favorite meals. It's really heartbreaking.
The experience of sitting down, of knowing who your waitress is — that's what got lost after COVID. I had people who came in every day, families who came in for breakfast every weekend.
Has your father been a part of Zaidy's over the past few years?
Oh, yes, every day. Or if he wasn't in, he'd be calling to check on everything. At eighty years old, he's as spry and spunky as ever, so it's been tough for him. But he's coming to terms with the fact that this won't be here every day in his life.
In your message to your customers, you left open the possibility that Zaidy's could someday return.
The reason we did that is that we took on an employee a few years ago who wanted to become a partner in the business. He's really passionate about the food and the Jewish culture behind the food and so many of our customers, and we wanted to keep the door open for him to do something. But this [pandemic] isn't going to end any time soon, and even after it does, things will be different. A lot of our clientele was an older crowd that related to the idea of a Jewish deli, but younger people want something different.
So if we reopen, it will be in a smaller location with more takeout and prepared food to go. But the culinary aspect and the familial aspect of what we've always been won't change.
Do you expect to see other restaurants close?
I really don't know how a lot of these restaurants are going to make it. The financial burden of having to make your restaurant work with COVID restrictions is becoming too difficult.
Is it hard to watch Washington, D.C., play political football with the second relief package?
Yes, it's tough to see them having so much trouble getting something passed while small businesses are suffering and waiting for some kind of relief package.
This is the third in our Coronavirus Chronicles series, talking with Denver area entrepreneurs, artists and others about how their businesses have been hit. Have a suggestion for an interview? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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