Owner Drew Ross behind the counter at the new storefront of Drewish Deli in Healdsburg, Aug. 31, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Owner Drew Ross behind the counter at the new storefront of Drewish Deli in Healdsburg, Aug. 31, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Drewish Deli owner turned his life around through bagels and pastrami

Reporting on a new deli is usually pretty predictable. I know in advance that I will taste some pastrami, and probably like it. More often than not, a bubbe will be invoked. Both those things happened at Drewish, the new Jewish deli in Healdsburg.

But my visit there reminded me that you can never make assumptions, and that everyone has their own story to tell. As owner Drew Ross talked about how he came to open Drewish, he openly disclosed the difficult turns his life had taken, sharing an unexpected part of the deli’s origin story.

Learning to make bagels, Ross said, helped keep him calm when it felt as if everything was crashing down around him eight years ago.

He had a felony on his record and was trying to put his life back together, and making dough and rolling bagels by hand became curative. He began selling them and finding success, but opening a Jewish deli was never part of his plans.

After years of trial and error, his bagel making became more than a hobby in 2018 when he got a cottage food license and began working out of his home, selling the bagels at farmers markets and to retailers as the Healdsburg Bagel Company. For a time, those were his only aspirations.

“If you asked me then, I would have said, ‘No way am I opening up a brick and mortar, that’s crazy,’” he said. “But it kept growing bigger.”

Lox and cream cheese shmear on a fresh bagel at Drewish Deli in Healdsburg, Aug. 31, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Lox and cream cheese shmear on a fresh bagel at Drewish Deli in Healdsburg, Aug. 31, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Ross, 54, grew up in the San Fernando Valley and says he was the strange kid who loved gefilte fish from a jar (he still does). He began his career as a bassist, touring and recording an album with his own band.

But it wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle, and in 2005 he and his then-wife and their new baby left Los Angeles for Healdsburg, where they soon had a second child. Why Healdsburg, a town of 11,000 on the Russian River?

“We wanted to get out of L.A.,” he said, “and liked the idea of Northern California.” The small-town vibe suited them.

Once out of the music industry, Ross became a clinical social worker and went into private practice, counseling people with mental illness, memory loss and other conditions of aging. At its height, his business employed numerous other counselors.

But things ended badly in 2015 when, as CBS News reported, he was charged with stealing $26,000 from an 86-year-old client with dementia and using the money to pay his taxes and take his family to Mexico. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to six months in prison but ended up serving three months on probation. News reports said Ross paid most of the money back before the woman passed away; he claims he paid it back fully. The judge in the case described his actions as “a serious matter, and the punishment and conditions are appropriate.”

“I feel completely remorseful and take full responsibility,” he told me. “I made massive misjudgments and put myself in a situation where I hurt people.”

He added: “It’s not something I go around telling people about, because it was a very dark point in my life. But ultimately I’m grateful. I was an asleep person, burnt out on my job, my marriage was horrible, and the universe got loud and woke me up. It’s part of what has made me who I am now.”

I love jumping in the deep end of the pool and figuring it out.

In a town as small as Healdsburg, it was big news. Calling it both “humbling and embarrassing,” he said, “I found out who my friends were and I made a conscious decision to stay here and walk around town and look people in the eye. I could have run away and hid, but that would have felt horrible. I’m super grateful that I was able to turn it around, wake up, and now I can be present for my kids and be present for this business and grow it into something.”

After his success selling bagels, Ross said opening his own place was a “natural progression.” Last year, he found a vacant commercial space in town and applied for loans, including from Hebrew Free Loan. (HFL came through first, which helped the others to follow, he said.)

“We believe in second chances, and he’s made amends,” said Cindy Rogoway, the executive director of S.F.-based HFL. “We evaluated him on the basis of his business plan and vision for what he could accomplish, and we’re proud to help him start this new chapter in his life.”

Drewish is the third Jewish deli to open in a 30-mile radius in the last three years. Grossman’s Noshery & Bar in Santa Rosa kicked it off in 2020, followed by Ethel’s Jewish Deli in Petaluma in June 2023. A little farther away, but also in the North Bay, are Loveski, which opened in Napa in 2021 with a second location coming to Larkspur, and the forthcoming Bubbala’s in San Anselmo.

“I think it’s fantastic. It means that people in this community are so excited for this,” Ross said.

Despite being relatively new to the food business, Ross said learning new skills and adding Jewish staples to the menu have been “so fun for me.” At Drewish, they’re making their own pastrami, curing their own lox and hand-rolling their own bagels. They’re also baking challah and rye, currently just for the sandwiches, though they may sell loaves in the future.

“I’m not a trained chef in any way, but I love food and I love cooking, and I have a lot of friends who are very talented, and they helped me and gave me advice,” he said. “At first, I was getting rye from a bakery, but I make rye bagels, so I thought, it can’t be that hard. I can source a lot of products from other people, but it’s fun to make it myself.”

With Drewish on the Jewish deli radar, “My focus now is finding the rhythm of keeping up with demand,” he said. “For the first two weeks, we couldn’t make pastrami fast enough, or enough pickles or enough rye. We were constantly chasing our tail, which is a good problem to have.”

On my visit, I loved the pastrami and lox, but found the chopped liver to be more of a pate style than classic chopped liver. And bagel fans, beware: They are a bit flatter than many bagels now found in the Bay Area. They have such nontraditional varieties as Asiago-bacon and spinach-Parmesan.

Also on the menu are chocolate babka, matzah ball soup, several types of knishes and two bagel “plates” — one with a choice of lox, pastrami spiced lox, smoked whitefish salad or smoked sturgeon, and the other, a classic “lox, eggs and onions.”

While it’s been a learning curve so far, Ross loves being a deli man. “I love jumping in the deep end of the pool and figuring it out,” he said. “My employees are amazing and really dedicated, hardworking, wonderful people.”

He also feels grateful that his career pivot helped him out of the most difficult period of his life.

Speaking about a recent Saturday, he said, “We were really busy. I saw so many friends and people I’ve known for years in town and they were here, sitting and talking, at the communal table, just enjoying. It felt really, really good.”

Drewish Deli is at 11 Mitchell Lane, Healdsburg. Thursday through Monday, 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 pm.

Small Bites

Leah Koenig, the New York–based author of the new cookbook “Portico: Cooking and Feasting in Rome’s Jewish Kitchens,” will be in conversation with David Nayfeld, chef and owner of Che Fico in San Francisco, at 7 p.m. Oct. 26 at the JCCSF. Koenig is the author of six other cookbooks, including “The Jewish Cookbook” and “Modern Jewish Cooking.” In this conversation, they’ll cover the foodways of Rome’s 2,000-year-old Jewish community. A few sample bites, wine and a book are included in the $42 price. Get details here.

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."