Owner shuts Shensons Deli — lox, stock and bagels

Alan Steinberg, the former owner of Shenson's Delicatessen in San Francisco, said last year that "if we build the perfect sandwich, they will come."

For the first time in 67 years, they didn't.

And now the venerable Richmond District institution has closed up shop, leaving a string of questions in its wake. One person who is remaining tight-lipped about the deli's closing is the former owner himself.

"No comment," said Steinberg, who bought the deli two years ago after a contest to give it away was called off.

But others aware of the deli's demise were more loquacious than the neophyte owner.

"Business was horrible," said Noah Kirshbaum, who briefly ran the deli part of the business along with his father Jeff. "I think part of it was the neighborhood, but part of it was a lack of business acumen.

"We were there for less than a month," he added. "I'm 26, and it used to kill me just to sit around and wait on three people all day."

Kirshbaum is now the co-owner of Kirshbaum's Delicatessen in downtown San Francisco.

The vagaries of running Shenson's on a day-to-day basis can be draining, according to Alexandra Allen, who owned the deli for more than 10 years before selling it to Steinberg.

"I don't know if I would've gone bankrupt running Shenson's, but I might have gone nuts," Allen said. "The work that I had to put into that place was too much for the return."

Although she noted that the flavor of the neighborhood has changed to "more of an Asian presence than a Jewish presence," Allen suggested that an establishment that's existed for nearly 70 years doesn't lose its staying power overnight. Or even in a year.

"I think that there were some hasty decisions made," she said. "It's easy to understand, given that Alan was a novice to the business. But still, they had some damaging impact."

Allen pointed to the huge selection of kosher wines she accumulated during her stewardship of Shenson's, which permanently shut its doors just before the first of the year.

"There was a huge clientele for those wines, but he just sold most of them off at half-price. Which was really a shame, because they were are part of our bread-and-butter business."

Allen made headlines in 1997 when she announced she'd be giving the deli away in a contest. For a $100 entry fee, interested parties could submit a song, poem or essay, and a panel of judges would choose the winner.

However, Allen came up short of the 1,500 entries she needed to net her goal of $150,000, which was roughly the appraised value of her business. She wouldn't divulge how many people entered, but she did return all of the entry fees.

Just as Allen was getting ready to call things off, Steinberg got antsy about pinning all of his hopes on his entry, so he made an offer to buy the deli outright. Allen accepted, although the sale price and terms were never revealed.

Allen expressed hope that, ultimately, someone in the Jewish community will step forward and save the only "haimish place for Sunday hang-out food."

She's not alone.

"I'm terribly sorry to see something like that go," said Annette Dobbs, a longtime San Francisco resident and frequent Shenson's patron. "I've been going there for 50 years now, and my children grew up on Shenson's. My father-in-law used to pick the kids up on Sundays, and they would spend the whole afternoon there."

Noting that she was a big fan of the pastrami, corned beef, matzah-ball soup and kosher wines, Dobbs said that finding a replacement would be almost impossible.

"I have no idea what I'm going to do now. All these great institutions are going the way of all flesh, it seems.

"What a shame it is, that with the big Jewish community we have, somebody couldn't do something."