Deli is next step in hopes for national chain

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Doors to a new Jewish deli will open-mid November on the outskirts of La Mesa at 6663 El Cajon Blvd. featuring a full vegan and vegetarian menu.

Owner Justin King said the shop, Ben and Esther’s, is the second in what he hopes will become an environmentally friendly, nationwide chain. The original is in Portland, OR.

King, 46, says he gave up eating meat years ago and wants “to make vegan Jewish delis accessible everywhere” without being looked at as an alternative to regular delis.

King, who comes from “an old New York, Jewish family” said the delis are named for his grandparents, Ben and Esther. Although the matzo ball soup is vegetarian, it is based on his grandma’s traditional recipe for matzo ball soup.

“People should know the deli is not specifically for vegans, I’m really trying to make Jewish comfort food for anyone and you don’t have to be a vegetarian or vegan to enjoy the food— we’re just trying to recreate traditional dishes in an ethical way. I want it to be acceptable and approachable for anyone to be comfortable eating there,” King said.

Besides, he said, bagels are vegan by default and anyone who has ever had a bagel and lox in a regular deli won’t be too surprised.

“It’s definitely a niche but the idea is to make a vegetarian and vegan menu more mainstream and the only way to make it more mainstream is to get people to accept an ethical outlook. I think it is important to consider principles over profit,” King said.

King landed on the second Ben and Esther’s location after a friend who has a similar background visited Portland and suggested San Diego might make for a good second launch.

The friend, business owner Marc Bennett, “has the same work ethic as me, is from Jersey, knows I don’t want to become corporate,” King said, but understands he wants to eventually grow into a franchise or chain with a couple locations in cities across the nation.

He and Bennett, who also owns both Pappy’s Barber Shop locations in San Diego decided to open the new deli as a takeout-only model following lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

King happened to sell off his own barber shop business, Rooks, toward the beginning of the pandemic, he said, and focused solely on keeping the deli going.

“The Portland deli was closed for a couple months before we switched to a delivery only model, which really meant driving bagels all over town. We adjusted though; now we’re just a takeout-only model and decided they will all be that way from now on to keep people moving through as we navigate the pandemic,” King said.

Deli is next step in hopes for national chain