About a year and a half ago, Lisa Thomas drove her father to Jerry's Famous Deli in Studio City, one of their favorite restaurants, to have a birthday brunch for him. However, when they arrived at the deli, they saw fire engines everywhere. The San Fernando Valley eatery was ablaze, causing an estimated $2 million in damages.
For 16 months, Thomas and her husband, Bruce Thomas, a sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, felt an emptiness in their lives -- or, rather, a void in their stomachs. Although they began eating at a nearby deli, nothing could replace Jerry's sky-high corned beef sandwiches, hearty matzah ball soup and friendly service, she said.
So when Jerry's rose from the ashes and reopened with standing-room-only crowds on Sept. 16, the Thomases were there. The couple arrived with the family's newest addition, 7-month-old Grant.
Smiling at his young son, Bruce Thomas said he couldn't wait to soon introduce him to the joys of Jewish cooking, Jerry's-style. "He will definitely have matzah ball soup, when it's time," he said.
Jerry's is back, and not a moment too soon for its legions of fans who made the Studio City location the strongest performer in the 12-store chain, which includes eight Jerry's, one Solley's Delicatessen and Bakery, two Wolfe Cohen's Rascal Houses, and one Epicure Market in Florida. The newly renovated Jerry's on Ventura Boulevard, with six plasma television screens and tile-and-marble floors replacing the shopworn carpets of yesteryear, has an updated look for the 21st century and 700 menu items for the ages, said Guy Starkman, president of Jerry's Famous Deli Inc., based in Studio City.
Standing amid a throng of customers, he said it appeared the company's $3.5 million investment to reopen the landmark Jerry's had paid off. "I didn't do any promotion, any advertising," said a smiling Starkman, as he glanced around the jammed restaurant.
Opening night had a part Hollywood-premiere, part high school reunion feel. Isaac "Ike" Starkman, the Israeli-born chief executive and Guy Starkman's father, flew in from Florida for the occasion. Looking resplendent in a sleek dark suit, he greeted customers as lost friends. Tucked away in booths were actors Robert Guillaume of "Benson" fame and British pop star Robbie Williams. Swarming around them were dozens of the restaurant's 150 employees, many of whom had worked there before it burned down on May 18, 2002. Between frantically taking orders, pouring drinks and washing dishes, they welcomed one another with hugs and smiles.
"The energy is just so good," said bartender David Bernstein, 43, a 19-year Jerry's veteran. "So many people have worked so hard to make this happen, and it's so nice to see it all come together."
Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky was on hand for the mezuzah-hanging ceremony. He said Jerry's reopening would boost sales at surrounding businesses by attracting people to the neighborhood. Equally important, he said, Southern California needs all the pastrami and rye it can get.
"We don't have a deli on every corner in L.A. like they do in New York," he said. "Here, you have to jump in your car to get to one. So anytime a deli opens up, it's a good day for the city."
Ike Starkman, a former lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Forces who came to the United States in 1961, started supporting himself working as a messenger and other menial jobs. In 1977 he cofounded Jerry's with the opening of a small Beverly Hills restaurant. A year later he helped launch the Studio City location. The store proved so popular that it doubled in size to 7,000 square feet, and just a few years later opened its doors 24 hours a day. With television and movie stars from nearby Disney, Warner Bros., Universal and CBS studios dropping by, Jerry's became the late-night haunt of celebrities, including the cast of "Seinfeld" and Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal. Andy Kaufman, the late star of "Taxi," once even worked there as a busboy.
In the early years, though, the deli chain struggled and hemorrhaged loses. To staunch the flow of red ink, Ike Starkman bought out his partner in 1984 and took over the business. Having founded a concessions company that operated bars, candy stands and souvenir shops on Broadway and at L.A. theaters, Starkman knew a thing or two about the food business. He tweaked the menu to broaden its appeal by adding salads and kids' meals. Within a few years, Jerry's was in the black and ready to grow.
To fuel that expansion, the company went public in 1995. Jerry's' initial public offering raised $9.2 million, money that was spent to open more restaurants, including one in Pasadena that later closed because of losses.
Despite its strong local reputation, Jerry's failed to excite Wall Street, which gravitated toward high-flying Internet companies. That the chain posted relatively steady-but-slow sales and profit growth didn't help. Jerry's stock, which once traded over $10, slumped to below $3 in the late 1990s. In 2001, the Starkmans took the company private.
"Wall Street was looking for double-digit growth and rapid expansion, and we kind of just got left behind,"said Guy Starkman, Jerry's president.
Even so, Jerry's remains one of the nation's handful of successful deli chains, said Larry Sarokin, a restaurant consultant with Sarokin & Sarokin in Beverly Hills.
Looking forward, Ike Starkman said he hopes to open another Jerry's next year in Los Angeles or Miami. For now, the reopening of the Studio City restaurant excites him most.
"It symbolizes the return to the good old times and coming alive again," Starkman said. "This gives us back our backbone."