J&R Kosher serves up meat with a personal touch as it did in the good old days, but it’s turned to the Internet to secure its future
MONTREAL – It’s still difficult for Robert Nemes to talk about the Holocaust. Nemes, 83, survived Auschwitz and, later, Plaszow labour camp. His parents and two younger brothers were not as lucky. But Nemes does not mind talking about a decision he made on liberation day.
“I decided I wanted to go into the meat business. I never wanted to be hungry again or for my family ever to be hungry,” he said.
Sixty years ago this fall, Nemes and his wife, Marianna, founded J&R Kosher. Nemes borrowed $400 from his father-in-law to start the business. The debt was repaid within a few months.
The couple set up shop in Outremont on Van Horne Ave. near Wiseman Ave. At the time, most customers placed their orders by telephone. Marianna took the calls; Nemes prepared the meat. A rabbi known in Hebrew as a mashgiach koshered the meat — deveining, salting and rinsing it to remove all traces of blood. A driver handled deliveries.
The Nemeses worked long hours, five days a week. “Sometimes, a customer would call on a Sunday. ‘My husband has a cold and I need a chicken to make chicken soup,’ so I’d bring them a chicken,” Robert Nemes recalled.
Doreen Green was a young bride living in Town of Mount Royal when she began buying meat at J&R. “Robert and Marianna were always sweet and polite, and they always gave me the best,” Green said.
In 1991, J&R followed its Jewish customers, many of whom had moved to Côte-St-Luc and Hampstead, and opened a second location at the Cavendish Mall. In 1996, the Nemeses closed the Outremont operation so they could concentrate on the Côte-St-Luc store.
By then, son Sidney, who had been working full time in the business since he was a teenager, had an important say in business decisions. “About three weeks after I came into the business, the conflict between the old style and the new style started. I told my father his expenses were too high,” Sidney Nemes, now 57, said.
Sidney came up with the idea of introducing self-serve pre-packaged products. But Sidney never forgot a lesson he learned from his parents — that personalized service keeps customers coming back for more.
“People still want to come in and be able to ask for that special cut. If I have a three-bone rib roast on the counter, and they want a five-bone, we can do it,” he said.
Sidney’s wife, Susie, has also become an important part of the business. She often handles the cash but is best known for her recipes.
Customer Heleena Wiltzer drives from her home in Westmount to shop at J&R. She uses Susie’s recipes for pickled veal roll and roast turkey. Wiltzer, 69, was raised in a kosher home. “As a Jewish person, it’s important to keep our heritage and pass it on,” she said.
Today, Zvi Hershcovich is the J&R mashgiach. Hershcovich, who spent three years working as a rabbi in Russia, says he loves his work at the butcher shop.
“I like knowing the piece of meat that our customers will put on the table is 100 per cent kosher,” he said.
J&R has eight full-time employees. Most of the business comes from walk-in customers. The made-on-the-premises deli products — salami, karnatzels, sausages of all kinds — introduced by Sidney have become popular items. The store also offers a selection of such takeout foods as egg rolls and General Tao chicken.
Now that Green’s three children are grown, she and her husband occasionally buy takeout from J&R. “I’ve cooked enough in my life, thank you,” she said.
The Cavendish Mall location has presented challenges for J&R. The mall has been losing business for years, and recently part of the mall was demolished to make way for residential construction, causing parking headaches.
Sidney estimates that between 2008 and 2012, J&R experienced a 25 per cent drop in business. “It’s been partly the economy, too,” he said.
But business is picking up. Recent tainted beef recalls — both in the non-kosher and kosher communities — mean more business for J&R.
“My location is super clean,” said Sidney, who has taken food hygiene courses with the Quebec Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. “We even get some customers here who want halal meat but who will buy kosher,” he said.
Like his father did before him, Sidney has turned to the next generation for advice. Son Zachary, 27, who works in finance in New York, helped his father create a website and a Facebook page, where customers can learn about weekly specials.
These days, orders — some from as far away as Moncton — are rolling in on Facebook.
“In the old days, my dad would call at night to discuss the business,” Sidney said. “I’d say, ‘My union lets me stop working at 7.’ Now my son calls me at 10 to discuss social networking and online strategy.”
J&R Kosher Meat and Delicatessen, 5800 Cavendish Blvd., tel. 514-369-2727 or visit its website at www.jrkosher.com