About five years ago, developer John Craig bought the modest empty brick-front building at 131 S. Gay Street, and said then that he wanted to make it another mom-and-pop deli, like its last tenant, Harold's Kosher-Style Foods, which occupied that address for 57 years. Craig even commenced to fix up the second floor, a long-abandoned gambling saloon, as a residence—just in case, he said, the people who ran his fictional deli wanted to live upstairs. His friends nodded and agreed that it sounded just swell. It's not clear that any believed it might actually happen.
But Ben Becker and his wife, Amy Willis-Becker, have every intention of opening a new mom-and-pop deli in the Harold's space. They'll call it Harry's, not after the late Harold Shersky, but after their own young son. They'll all three live upstairs.
The building was in worse shape inside than most people realized, and it's taken much longer than anybody expected—at one time, our archives tell us, Craig was hoping to have a restaurant tenant in place in 2006—but after spending $500,000 in repairs to the early 20th-century building, it's now within a few weeks of being ready to turn over to a couple of people who believe they know how to run a restaurant.
The Beckers both grew up in Knoxville, began working in food service in their youth, and attended the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt. The young couple worked in the restaurant business for about three years in food-trendy Portland, Ore., then moved back to Vermont for further degrees in restaurant management.
"We moved back because of the opportunity," says Ben Becker, now 35, who says he grew up with his father, Jeff Becker, taking him to Harold's. "Not to reopen Harold's, but do a similar thing, and pay homage to Harold's."
Rather than kosher, though, they'll emphasize local, and meats and breads they prepare themselves. "We want to make it as local as possible," Becker says. "We want to create more of a distinct local-food scene downtown."
He describes the concept as a "Jewish-Italian deli," with classic Jewish cuisine, cured meats like pastrami, salami, and corned beef, but also pork products, like bacon and prosciutto. Because the Beckers intend to sell nothing except what they prepare themselves, the prosciutto won't be ready until about a year after they open. "We'll make our own breads, make our own pickles," he says. "Everything we'll make in there, besides cheese. One day we hope to do that also."
They'll be open for breakfast, but rather than bagels, they'll serve bialys, the bagel's un-holey cousins. The street level will be the serving area, with about 50 seats, plus some café tables out front. A counter and some stools and what he calls the "hot kitchen," with the oven, in back. Downstairs will be, for the time being, all food-prep area: the "cold kitchen," with the meat coolers.
Harry's hours will be very reminiscent of Harold's, Monday through Saturday, open at 7 a.m., and closed at 4 p.m. for the seated customers, but the counter will be open until 6 p.m., for people who want to buy some meat for supper.
Becker's at the mercy of construction, which is behind schedule, but he has hopes of opening as soon as February.
Harold Shersky, the eponymous proprietor, and his wife, Addie, sometimes struggled to keep the place open. The Beckers seem confident that they know what they're getting into. "We've seen what works and what doesn't work," Ben Becker says.
He says, frankly, the fact that the restaurant won't be oriented toward one set of religious observances may broaden the audience. There may have been strong demand for a kosher deli in 1948, but perhaps less so today. "I grew up in the Jewish community, and know there aren't that many people who keep strictly kosher," he says.
And he'll be running a deli in a very different landscape than Harold did. Residents have proven themselves to be downtown's most reliable restaurant patrons, and there are now many more people living within a few minutes' walk of 131 S. Gay than there were in Harold's time.
The block is in flux, culinarily. Nama, which opened while Harold's was still running, is moving to bigger quarters beside the Regal Riviera. On this recently redone block, which hosts several galleries and gift shops and hundreds of residents, the only other restaurant is Ollantay's Havana Nights, which appears to be closed indefinitely for major interior work.
Craig, a developer who has also led several other projects resurrecting downtown icons, notably the S&W project, seems pretty happy with how things are turning out, five years later. "Our business plan always included recruiting a young couple from Vermont to run a Jewish deli in the space," he deadpans. "Seriously, we were just lucky that we were able to meet Amy and Ben. The neat thing is that they are about the same age that Harold and Addie were when they started Harold's."