The Jewish Museum, San Francisco
I'm a sucker for a pastrami sandwich. But as Evan Bloom will tell you, a really great one is hard to come by in San Francisco. After I moved to the city's Mission District, my diet basically consisted of 90% tacos (not that I'm complaining) so it was a delightful surprise when one day, while ambling down 24th Street, I noticed a Jewish deli. Wise Sons, a cozy, welcoming corner space, turned out to be full of nostalgic classics like corned beef, latkes, matzo ball soup and chopped liver. You could also tell there was heed paid to quality; the bagels were house-made and the pastrami (as I later learned from Evan) was the process of a lot of trial-and-error.
I first met Evan while writing about the food at Outside Lands music festival for the Guardian. I saw Wise Sons' stall (and their pastrami cheese fries) and ran over for a chat. We met again his outpost at the San Francisco Jewish Museum to talk more about the business he set up with his college buddy in 2010, almost by accident.
"I started the business with no experience. I’d never been a chef, I’d never been a manager"
I graduated from UC Berkeley with an architecture degree. And then I thought, I don’t want to do this. I knew even when I was in college. So I went into construction and project management but ultimately it was very unsatisfying. At the time my brother was getting his MBA and I turned to him for advice. He said, write a business plan about something, anything. I had no idea what.
At the time, my co-founder Leo and I were making pastrami in the back yard for fun. We had met in college and used to do a weekly BBQ for the Jewish student union. I loved it. For four years I had planned my whole school schedule around it. But it was never gonna be more than that.
Getting into food was neither of our plans. But I just told him, “I’m going to write this business plan and you’re going to do it with me,” and he was like “OK, cool!” It just kinda started happening. It was the recession, around 2010, and there wasn’t a lot of risk at the time. No kids, no significant others. We had nothing to lose.
Why pastrami? Well, we were looking for a good pastrami sandwich and there wan’t one around. So we started tinkering. The fist time we made it, it was somehow really good. The next time it was terrible, like inedible. It was very much trial and error.
"Eating here is a cultural experience not a religious experience. I think that’s a big reason we’re successful"
My mom will tell you anything that’s good in the restaurant is her recipe, which isn’t true. I always loved cooking at home with her. Judaism was a big part of growing up. My grandparents were Orthodox and my dad usually kept kosher. My family showed me all these different types of food. I always used to think maybe I’d run a restaurant when I retired, but not now.
I think before we opened, Jewish food didn’t really exist here and people wanted it. There are a lot of Jews in the Bay Area but they are more culturally Jewish. They might not go to synagogue or celebrate the holidays but they are like, “Hey I’m Jewish, I’m going to have a pastrami sandwich.” I think that’s a big reason we are successful, because eating here is a cultural experience not a religious experience.
I grew up in Ventura, California, near Santa Barbara. My earliest deli memory is actually in Florida, a place called the Rascal House that’s now gone. It was in Miami Beach. It was very stereotypical, old school, a big place where the waitresses were all old Jewish ladies. I remember trying to order a corned beef sandwich with ketchup on it and the waitress refused to give it to me. I remember people taking the bread off the table and putting it in their purse.
"I remember trying to order a corned beef sandwich with ketchup on it and the waitress refused to give it to me"
I started the business with no experience. I’d never been a chef, I’d never been a manager. One of the hardest things about that is managing people who look to you and say, “How do you do this?” and I’m like, “I don’t know, you tell me!” We did a lot of that in the beginning and it wasn’t good. It was a steep learning curve.
In the early days I did something called a “stage” which is basically free labor in a restaurant kitchen that people do to educate themselves. I remember the night before my first one I stayed up all night watching YouTube videos of how to properly segment oranges and cut a potato. I was so scared of showing up and not knowing the basics. But the food community in San Francisco is really supportive. People are so nice. I remember going into State Bird when they first opened; the guy who runs it is a very talented chef. I went in and said, “Man, your smoked sturgeon is incredible.” And he was like, “What’s your email address? I’ll send you the recipe. The only deal is that you have to tell me how you improved it so that I can keep learning too.” That’s San Francisco.
Ultimately I think a restaurant is the personification of its owners. When we opened the place on 24th Street I lived two blocks away. I opened the kind of restaurant I want on my corner. The thing I’m most proud of now is that we have 100 employees, and I think we take good care of them. To have created that many jobs and have that many people depending on me is something.
I still don’t consider myself a chef. I know our food really well but I’m not going to step into an Italian restaurant and work the pasta station. I still love to cook at home. I think for anyone whose true calling is to be in the food industry, running a business doesn’t kill that joy. I love to experiment, I love the creative process. When I left the house this morning I put some chicken thighs in the fridge to defrost. I dunno what I’m gonna make when I get home, but that will be my evening activity. It can be hard to switch off. But for an hour when I get home and I cook, I won’t be thinking about the restaurant.
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Festival photos taken by Feeder. Photos of the 24th Street Mission space by Molly Decoudreaux, courtesy of Wise Sons