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Rose Kravitz discusses joys, challenges of running a business since 1939

Rose Kravitz, owner of Kravitz's Delicatessen, in 2006.

Rose Kravitz, owner of Kravitz's Delicatessen, in 2006.

This article was originally published in the March 2006 issue of The Metro Monthly.

By Mark C. Peyko | Metro Monthly Editor

When Kravitz’s Delicatessen opened in 1939, “Gone With the Wind” was in theaters and World War II was about to begin. Rose Kravitz and her husband were in their early twenties and about to undertake a business partnership that would endure the lean war years, periods of growth and prosperity, and the establishment of a family.

Today the delicatessen is serving its fourth generation of customers and a North Jackson production facility turns out 2,000 bagels per hour for wholesale and retail customers in 15 states.

For many Mahoning Valley residents, the Liberty-based delicatessen remains a constant in community life. In addition, even at 90, delicatessen cofounder Rose Kravitz still takes an active role in the administration of the restaurant where she typically works a full day.

Kravitz recalled that the original Elm Street location was an immediate hit, even though she and her husband were young and inexperienced. “From the very beginning, we had the acceptance of the community. Right from the start. We still have that ability within our business.”

“We’re a Jewish deli that caters to the general public,” Kravitz said.

With limited experience, the young couple opened Kravitz’s Delicatessen on Elm Street near Thornton Avenue. Although Youngstown’s North Side had the highest concentrations of Jews in the metropolitan area, Kravitz said the delicatessen’s appeal transcended racial and cultural lines.

Like many small, family-owned businesses, Kravitz’s had its challenges and triumphs. Rationing and wartime food shortages were serious early hurdles for a business in need of a constant supply of foodstuffs.

“During World War II, getting products was difficult,” Kravitz recalled. “It was a big thing in any food business. There was no butter. If you needed meats, you had to have [rationing] tickets or you went on the black market,” Kravitz recalled.

However, it was a debilitating illness that presented the most serious early challenge to the young couple. Ironically, hidden within the challenge was the greatest opportunity for a lifetime partnership, because it set the tone for the couple’s relationship.

Sixteen-year-old Rose Hirschl met her future husband at an impromptu – albeit manufactured – social event that she and her teenage girlfriends cooked up one afternoon.

“We got on the phone and called up and few boys and said we were going to have a party with hot dogs and snacks and a bunch of girls were going to be there,” Kravitz recalled. She met her future husband there, and, after a courtship, the couple married.

Kravitz said her husband unexpectedly took ill during the early years of their marriage.

She said they managed to weather the challenge, but the illness rendered him incapable of performing some of the more demanding physical tasks needed in the family business. Kravitz said her husband’s decision to delegate responsibility had as much to do with necessity as with the emotional chemistry of the couple. She said her husband encouraged her to delegate noncritical domestic responsibilities to others too.

Kravitz said delegating responsibility was an important early lesson and one that still applies in running a business at 90. “You need to delegate certain things in a business or you’ll burn yourself out,” she observed.

After a few years in business, the Kravitzs acquired a commercial building farther north on Elm near Tod Lane. “We bought the building and we had enough money saved that we renovated that building. In a matter of not too many years, we had the building paid for,” Rose Kravitz recalled. Still, there were occasional challenges to the business in its early years.

“For a short period of time, things got a little bit hard,” Kravitz said. “I think we had too much inventory and not enough cash. So rumors started to pass around the town: ‘Kravitz’s isn’t doing well.’ She said that’s when her husband, who had a keen understanding of marketing and public image, stepped in.

“My husband said, ‘Let’s try something. Let’s buy a new car.’ And I said, ‘You’re nuts!’ But he said, ‘No.’ So her husband went out and bought a new car and parked it right in front of the restaurant. 

“We took our register, which was in the back and put it up front. So if we had two customers, it looked like the place was as busy as you could ever imagine,” Kravitz recalled. She said the rumors of  ill fortune soon ceased, adding that her husband was keenly aware of public image and marketing. “He was sharp . . . and he was a very, very kind caring man.”

Kravitz said she attributed the delicatessen’s success to the mutual respect she and her husband had toward each other. “I think mainly because we respected each other’s needs. My husband, first, could not physically handle as much as I could. That was a fact. He had a back problem, his legs got tired very quickly, but that didn’t matter. With a little bit of pampering, it worked out well.”

She said each understood and respected personal needs outside of the business. “My husband needed recreation, like golf. He needed bowling. He needed a good poker game. And I made sure that he had it. In the afternoon, when I needed time for myself – whether it was running the house, taking care of the children – he made sure I had that. The first day I had children, I had house help. And my husband said to me, ‘If you don’t have house help, you’ll burn out.’ ”

Kravitz said sharing responsibilities was in the business from the onset, with tasks suited to the strengths and capabilities of each person. “My husband decided that as far as managing money, I could do better than he could. So there was no competition,” she recalled. “We each knew that one person had certain strengths and we respected that. And we also gave ourselves enough time away from each other. We each still had a little bit of extra life.”

In recent years, developments have ensured that the Kravitz name reach a wider audience than those who frequent the restaurant. In the early 1990s Rose’s son, Jack, and daughter-in-law, Cindy, opened a production facility to manufacture bagels for retail and wholesale customers.

Rose Kravitz said her lawyer son approached the mass production of bagels as if he were preparing for a case. “He had books from the library, just like he was doing a law case. Books on chemistry, books on physics, books on engineering. That place is automated. You had to know what you were talking about.”

Rose Kravitz said the North Jackson business started before a bagel boom in the 1990s, so there wasn’t a model for production. “There was no precedent for the business.” She said large-scale bagel manufacturers like Lenders were making a frozen product. “They [Jack and Cindy Kravitz] literally had to set their own model,” Kravitz recalled. “And you couldn’t make too many mistakes or you could get wiped out.”

Before opening North Jackson, bagels were manufactured at the Belmont Avenue deli with a crew of 20 people. Realizing the inadequacies of such an arrangement, the Kravitz family began looking for a more appropriate location.

Today the North Jackson production facility turns out 2,000 bagels per hour for customers in 15 states. “We built it from the ground up. We started with nothing and I think we did well,” Rose Kravitz concluded.

© 2009, The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.