They've all owned Saul's! (Clockwise from left) David Rosenthal, Peter Levitt, Sam Tobis, Jesus "Chuy" Mendoza, Karen Adelman and Andra Lichtenstein. (Photo/Daniil Vishnevskiy)
They've all owned Saul's! (Clockwise from left) David Rosenthal, Peter Levitt, Sam Tobis, Jesus "Chuy" Mendoza, Karen Adelman and Andra Lichtenstein. (Photo/Daniil Vishnevskiy)

Saul’s Deli finally finds new owners — and they were there all along

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

It was billed as a celebration of Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen’s 36th (double chai) birthday, as well as a musical fundraiser for World Central Kitchen’s efforts to feed Ukrainian refugees. And it raised $2,000 for the cause. But what wasn’t publicly stated was that the July 28 party was also celebrating a major milestone: Two new partners are now on board and eventually will become sole owners of the beloved Berkeley restaurant, stewarding it into the future.

It’s been common knowledge that Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman, owners of Saul’s since 1996, have been looking for the right buyer since 2016. A J. cover story about their desire to retire sounded much like a classified ad. A lot has happened since then, including finding someone they thought was a promising buyer. But the pandemic foiled the sale.

Now, after weathering the past two years with a fast-casual model, they are ready to share what Saul’s regulars might have guessed for months now: Sam Tobis, 32, owner of Oakland’s Grand Bakery since 2017, and longtime Saul’s chef Jesus “Chuy” Mendoza, 37, are coming on as partners. Levitt and Adelman are staying on but in a reduced capacity. Both are in their early 60s, and their goal is to fully transfer ownership to the new partners gradually, probably over the next several years.

“It’s not a super clean cut, like, here’s your money, goodbye,” Adelman told J. “Sam made it clear that he wanted to come in and learn from us and meet our regular customers through us.”

Adelman and Levitt felt the weight of the community’s trust. They knew they couldn’t sell Saul’s to just anyone, but needed to find new owners who understood the restaurant’s unique role as not only a longstanding and popular Jewish deli, but also as a Jewish gathering spot.

Dancing and music in front of Saul's Deli, July 28, 2022. (Photo/Daniil Vishnevskiy)
Dancing and music in front of Saul’s Deli, July 28, 2022. (Photo/Daniil Vishnevskiy)

They are certain they found the right people for the job.

“The new energy there feels exciting,” Adelman said. “Both deeply care about the philosophy and spirit of the place. Chuy has been working with our employees so long that people work really hard for him, and he and Peter are super close. Sam is really smart and has virtually no ego in it, which is rare in the restaurant industry. It’s a passion project for them and not just a job.”

While Mendoza came in unfamiliar with the cuisine, Adelman said, he’s learned a tremendous amount in the past decade-plus, eating whatever deli he can when he travels and reading everything he can get his hands on — and, of course, learning from Levitt.

(Levitt didn’t exactly grow up with Jewish deli either, having been raised in Johannesburg, South Africa.)

Before Saul’s was Saul’s, it opened as a lunch counter called the Pantry Shelf in 1955. It wasn’t a deli per se, though it had “delicatessen” in big letters above the door and sold deli sandwiches along with burgers. Some decades later, David Rosenthal bought it and renamed the deli Rosenthal’s. That lasted until 1986, when Andra Lichtenstein put together a partnership to buy it, naming it after her father, Saul Lichtenstein.

Both Rosenthal and Lichtenstein are still regulars today, and were there last week to celebrate.

Adelman started as a server at Saul’s in 1989, and Levitt became chef there in 1995 after cooking at both Chez Panisse and Oliveto. They bought Saul’s together in 1996 and co-managed it for the next 26 years.

Tobis, originally from New York, came to the area to attend Cal and never left. (His parents and sister have since joined him here.) He met Levitt in 2017 after he had taken over Grand Bakery, a longtime Saul’s vendor that sold its baked goods to the deli.

Sam Tobis at work in Grand Bakery (Photo/Courtesy Sam Tobis)
Sam Tobis at work in Grand Bakery (Photo/Courtesy Sam Tobis)

Levitt made it known that he was looking for a buyer, but Tobis’ response at the time was “I’m a host and a line cook.” Even though by then he was running a Jewish food operation of his own, he told Levitt that taking over a wholesale bakery business was enough of a learning curve.

That was then.

Tobis said Levitt has been a huge influence on how he runs Grand Bakery. For example, he’s switched to using all organic, heirloom flour for Grand’s baked goods.

“Peter came up in the heart of the California food movement, and I think he’s one of the most underappreciated deli men in the country,” Tobis said. “Saul’s is East Coast and Eastern Europe meets Middle East, from comfort shtetl fare to falafel and house-made pita every day. This cross-pollination of food from the Jewish diaspora is just fabulous.”

Tobis’ interest in the deli grew over time, and since last November he has been a noticeable presence at Saul’s, learning the ropes, while Mendoza continues running his domain, the very kitchen he’s worked in for over 10 years. Yet, whenever Tobis was asked about his future role — numerous times by this columnist over the last months — he wouldn’t divulge specifics, only saying, “I’m working at Saul’s.”

Even now, Tobis chooses his words carefully, suggesting that this column should emphasize “Long Live Saul’s,” and not focus on him.

“Chuy and I complement each other, so that I can focus more on the things I do well,” Tobis said, describing the Saul’s family as “a strong core of people who have been working here for years.”

Added Mendoza, “We are a really strong team. I’m excited and happy to be part of the future of this great restaurant.”

One thing Tobis will say is that they’ve been improving Saul’s bakery program.

Grand Bakery’s kitchen is parve (meaning no butter can be used), but Tobis has brought plenty of general baking know-how to Saul’s, which is not kosher. He has also hired a new baker, and converted part of the office into a new area devoted to baking. Traditional goods, such as babka, rugelach and black-and-white cookies, have improved over the previous iterations, and some new items have been added, like tahini cookies. (Saul’s already had been baking its own bagels and house-made pita.)

Even though he has ownership in two East Bay Jewish food businesses now, Tobis says each is distinct and will remain that way.

“I’m very excited to continue the legacy, culture and food experience that Karen and Peter have cultivated,” he said. “Grand Bakery will maintain its own identity and kosher experience.”

For their part, Levitt and Adelman couldn’t be happier with the arrangement, one that allows flexibility in their schedule for the first time in decades. As J. reported in early June, Levitt traveled to Poland to volunteer with World Central Kitchen, cooking for Ukrainian refugees for two weeks in May and then staying in Berlin and traveling, knowing Saul’s was in good hands. He was away for four months, something that would have been unthinkable until recently.

“Peter doesn’t want to be the guy doing it anymore, but his curiosity and talent will remain part of Saul’s,” said Adelman.

Adelman is happy to stay on doing social media, graphics and other tasks for now, while taking her time to figure out what’s next.

“It’s hard to know who I am without Saul’s, as I’ve been there so long,” Adelman said. “People see me and they suddenly get hungry.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."