Yeshiva bochers open up kosher deli in downtown S.F.

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

At the S.F. New York Deli, you can get a homemade knish and a pastrami sandwich with a side order of tefillin.

The walk-in lunch spot, which opened in late September at the Embarcadero Center, is one of many restaurants dotting the walkway between Justin Herman Plaza and Drumm Street — but it’s the only one with mezuzahs on the doors.

Any remaining questions about which eatery is the kosher deli are immediately cleared up when one walks through the door and spots 19-year-old counterman Menachem Freeman laying tefillin. Within a few moments store proprietor Yisroel Freeman, 23, and manager Yossi Roth, 19, would also lay tefillin in between dicing carrots, stirring matzah ball soup and serving a few kosher-conscious customers ecstatic that they no longer had to shlep a brown-bag lunch to work.

“I’ve always wanted to be my own boss,” explains Yisroel Freeman as to why he’d enter San Francisco’s restaurant business (risky) with a kosher deli (lethal).

Both the Freeman brothers are from Crown Heights, and Roth grew up in Miami Beach. So they do know the huge responsibility of self-applying the term “New York deli” to a restaurant. Even non-Jews conjure up images of sumptuous sandwiches piled with meat, meat and more meat, and delightfully bitter pickles bursting with more salt than Lot’s wife.

But only weeks into business, Freeman’s place seems to be passing the test.

“The other day two guys came in and one of them ordered a combo. And the friend saw us making the food and said ‘that sandwich looks pretty badass, I want one too,'” says the elder Freeman with a laugh.

Incidentally, the deli’s sandwiches are indeed rather large. They’re not Carnegie Deli large, but that’s kind of like saying a destroyer is smaller than an aircraft carrier.

Freeman arrived in Oakland a couple of years ago to serve as a mashgiach — a kosher overseer — at Oakland Kosher, working for the Vaad HaKashrus (who now oversee his store). And when Freeman took note of the dearth of kosher delis in San Francisco, he figured he could spin it two ways — there’s either no demand for it or it’s a vast, untapped market. Freeman is hoping for the latter.

They young restaurateurs, incidentally, don’t don kippahs and beards and lay tefillin for show. All three are deeply religious, and Yisroel Freeman and Roth are both ordained Chabad rabbis — not that they look the part. Roth may be the world’s only rabbi who wears trucker caps to work (though Freeman notes that if the idea of a rabbi dressed like Ashton Kutcher is unusual, so’s the notion of a glatt kosher joint in the Embarcadero).

So far, Freeman estimates around 60 percent of his customers are kosher-conscious and 80 percent are Jews. And while he feels that yes, you can stay in business selling virtually only to Jews, he doesn’t intend to.

“For the lunch crowd here at Embarcadero, they can get kosher or they can get pizza. For them it doesn’t make a difference,” he says.

And once they’re in the store, it’s a good bet the Freeman boys or Roth will steer them toward buying a homemade knish, fresh chicken soup and, of course, a Dr. Brown’s soda.

For Freeman, success means, naturally, staying in business. But it also means happy customers, who come back again and again and bring friends.

And, as if on cue, a customer walks in the store, eyes the menu and asks if Freeman can serve him a bowl of New England clam chowder. There’s an awkward pause, and Freeman patiently explains why he, in fact, cannot. The customer thanks him and leaves.

“Well,” says Freeman with a smile, “you can’t make everyone happy.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.