Murray Klein, 84, who lost his family in the Holocaust, was imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp, and smuggled arms to pre-state Palestine and then became a key player in America’s “foodie” revolution from his post at Zabar‘s, died Dec. 6, 2007, of lung cancer.
Klein, a co-owner of the famed delicatessen and gourmet store Zabar’s on New York’s Upper West Side, helped bring gourmet utensils and food to Manhattan’s middle class and by extension and example to the rest of the United States.
“That one little Yiddishe store had an effect on the way people ate all over America, and it was really because of him,” Steven Fass, an importer, told the New York Times.
According to the Times obituary:
“Klein was the public face of Zabar’s for decades, a ubiquitous round-shouldered figure in a butcher’s coat who bantered with Itzhak Perlman and Zero Mostel on the sawdust-covered sales floor, posted caricatures of his competitors in the windows and sternly advised customers about everything from smoked sable to espresso makers….
(He) drove decisions about merchandise, pricing and publicity. He brought trendy European cheeses to New York’s newly minted foodies while feeding borscht and pickled herring to Jewish celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen. Both skills helped Zabar’s gain a national following in the 1970s.”
Klein turned Zabar’s into such a landmark it is frequently mentioned in pop culture, including the 1998 film, “You’ve Got Mail,” and on the U.S.sitcoms “Will and Grace” and “Mad About You.”
Klein battled with Macy’s in what became known as the Beluga Caviar war in 1983, eventually driving the price down to below cost, and fought Cuisinart in the 1970s so he could sell the company’s food processors at a discount.
New York Magazine’s food blog referenced the Macy’s battle, and said Klein was “one of the last of the old-time Jewish businessmen, one who would rather sell caviar at a loss than back down from a fight with Macy’s.”
Klein was born in a Jewish town in the Soviet Union near the Romanian border, his son told the Times. His parents and five siblings all died in Nazi concentration camps, and he ended up in a Soviet labor camp.
Fass told the Times Klein escaped from the Soviet camp and joined the Irgun, a Jewish guerrilla movement that helped smuggle arms to pre-state Palestine.
He joined Zabar’s as a stockman and worked with – and occasionally against the Zabar family for the next 40 years, winding up as a co-owner of the store when he retired in 1994.
The Zabar’s blog said of Klein: “To us he was like a father, a mentor – so easy to learn from. Like a parent he pushed us, trained us and taught us everything we know. And like a child we feel the depth of his loss. May his memory be a blessing to all who know him.
A former Zabar’s worker wrote: “I got my strong sense of work ethic by being hired and working under Murray Klein at Zabar’s back in the 70’s. To those who worked under him, he demanded the best from his staff and nothing less. As a person, Murray respected those who worked hard and performed.”