Let Us Be Your Jewish Mother
Robert Shuman has cooked for crews of hungry sailors, worked for a well-respected restaurant group and co-created two Italian restaurant concepts in the competitive environs of Boston. But it wasn’t until the 1997 opening of Zaftigs, the ‘non-deli deli’ in Brookline, MA that Shuman answered his calling. Nothing was going to deter his dream — not the mounting costs of doing business or the inevitable comparisons with New York delis, or opening in a space where several restaurants had started and failed in the last five years.
Shuman knew the time was right and the town ripe (literally--‘zaftig’ is a Yiddish word meaning ripe, juicy, luscious) for his vibrant offering of a neighborhood eatery with mass appeal. At its core would be Jewish comfort food like noodle kugel, matzo ball soup and corned beef sandwiches. But Shuman went further than that, piling up a menu of more than 200 items, almost all made in-house, to win over every type of diner ... Jewish, singles, seniors, families, late night noshers, early morning workers, breakfast-all-day fans, ala carte menu hoppers. Known just as Zaftigs at first, Shuman ensured his meat loaf dinners and banana stuffed French toast received as much play as the beloved potato pancakes and stuffed cabbage.
A hit from the start, Shuman carved out a family-friendly niche with meals ringing in at just shy of $15 per person, offering a “much better value than a fast casual concept for $10. We’re not the cheapest game in town, because we’re offering a high quality product — seven-bean dark roast coffee; freshly baked, locally sourced breads and bagels delivered daily; smoked fish brought in from New York; premium brisket meat.” It’s the reason, he says, that second-time customers become regulars.
There’s also that banana stuffed French toast, which has rightly become one of Zaftigs’ signature dishes. Using a base of brioche, Shuman pipes in mascarpone and banana, freezes, and then cuts slabs with the rich core prominently displayed. That’s dipped into a bourbon-vanilla batter, fried on the flat top grill and topped with a date butter and berry compound for a “super sweet treat that’s ordered day and night.”
location in Natick four and a half years ago, he again gauged the local appetite correctly and used the ample square footage to offer a takeout and catering market with fish, meats and desserts. He realized the very different energy of each, with the suburban Natick packing in the crowds on weekends, at more defined mealtimes, while Brookline’s urban location, including a dense cluster of colleges, continued to draw in groups of ravenous diners all day.
Shuman continues to add fun touches – an online store with Zaftigs t-shirts that “sell better than any item on the menu!” and a tricked-out catering van that builds the brand everywhere it goes. He generously credits the next-gen Shumans, his son and daughter, for “helping infuse new life into the business.”
They join a core group of employees who have been with Shuman since the beginning, as well as the shorter-term but equally enthusiastic staff of college students. All are motivated to exceed guests’ expectations, he says, and learn quickly that there’s a protocol and a fix for every customer issue, from peanut allergies to a slightly cooled off cup of soup. “There’s a sense of urgency and responsibility behind every plate,” he says. The guest experience must be stellar throughout, beginning with fresh bagel chips and herbed cream cheese to munch on, and careful attention paid to every part of the order. “If an order’s not interpreted correctly, or we don’t exceed expectations, we always make it right,” he says. “When a customer contacts me with an issue, I send them a warm note, taking full responsibility, and enclose a gift card. It’s a wonderful opportunity to earn back their trust.”
And that makes Shuman a real ‘mensch,’ Yiddish for a person of integrity and honor.