Our story? Seriously? Got a minute, ‘cause this might take a while.
Caplansky’s Deli was born from the desire for a great smoked meat sandwich. Simple as that. In the summer of 2007, Zane Caplan, as I was known at the time, had a serious hankering for a Schwartz’s smoked meat sandwich. Schwartz’s is a world-famous Montreal deli. If you’ve never been there: go. If you’ve been you’ll understand how the taste stays with you, in many cases, for life. It’s that good.
Anyway, that summer of 2007, I asked a friend returning from Montreal to bring me back a smoked meat sandwich. His failure to do so was the spark that ignited the passion that became Caplansky’s Deli. Left high and dry with my craving I refused to settle for whatever was available at the time and set out to teach myself the ancient craft of curing, spicing, steaming and hand-slicing beef briskets, aka smoked meat, in my backyard in downtown Toronto.
Miraculously, my first attempt was a success. With the support and encouragement of all who tasted it in those early days, I started to think about commercialising my product. An entrepreneur at heart, my instincts told me that I’m not alone in my love of deli and smoked meat. However, I was broke at the time, living paycheck to paycheck managing a restaurant in midtown Toronto. Never one to let such details hold me back, I set my sights on the Monarch Tavern as a potential location.
The Monarch was a bona fide “Dive Bar”. Often described as “dank” by the food writers of the day, The Monarch smelled of stale beer and bachelor parties. Dark wood walls, low slung ceiling and torn banquettes, it was almost the furthest thing from a deli you might imagine. Located upstairs and on a quiet side street, it was the kind of place you wouldn’t take a respectable woman on a date unless you weren’t interested in dating her further. Or unless you didn’t want you wife to find out. In other words, it had a certain authentic charm.
One quirk about the place: they let you bring food in from outside. I loved buying panzo’s and veal sandwiches from the nearby shops and bringing them upstairs to enjoy with a beer. Countless Leaf games were enjoyed under these circumstances.
After negotiating my “lease” with Louis Cristello, one of the owners, I opened in June of 2008. Thanks to an article that appeared in the Globe and Mail a few days prior to launch, we got crushed. We ran out of two weeks supply of meat in the first day and a half.
If Marshall McLuhan was right, the medium and the message was meat. Dark crimson, salty sweet meat dripping with fatty delicious spices. Over the next few months I was the subject of more print and online media than I could ever dream of. All that attention, as well as the experiences of happy, happy guests helped bring together a group of investors who helped us open our landmark location on College Street in September of 2009.
Google will tell you that I was locked out of the College St deli in June of 2016 by our landlord. The reason? “Failure to effect repairs not approved by the landlord.” According to the humiliating notice pasted on two glass doors of my restaurant around midnight on June 6 of that year. I hired lawyers and quickly got back in. But the relationship with the landlord made the business untenable and in January of 2018 I closed the doors rather than endure that relationship further.
What about the food truck? The Yorkville franchise? The catering business? My radio show? TV shows? Mustards? All good questions but I need you to hold your horses. I’m really trying to keep this short. Please bear with me while I take my time composing and posting my stories from this period of my life. All will be told in due time.
In the meantime, thanks for being here. Thanks for reading this far and thanks for being part of my journey. Life isn’t easy but it sure does have its moments, eh.