MONTREAL - The deal is done for nearly $10 million and the declaration has been made: There will be only one Schwartz’s deli, and it stays on the Main.
Schwartz’s officially changed hands Monday afternoon, and Paul Nakis, who leads a consortium including his family and that of René Angélil and his cousins Eric and Martin Sara, has pledged that there are “absolutely no plans to franchise” the deli.
When rumours of the sale started a month ago, there had been great concern that this landmark would sprout franchises across the country and even the U.S. The horror, the horror: an antiseptic Schwartz’s outlet in a strip-mall in Scarborough or Saskatoon. Oy! After all, Montreal pride was at stake here.
“Our goal is to keep Schwartz’s going the way it is,” Nakis said Monday night. “If we can make minor improvements, we will. But we don’t intend to add new Schwartzs or change the atmosphere around the place at all. We just intend to enjoy the business the way it is.”
Nor will there be staff changes. Nakis wants to keep the employees – many of whom have been there for decades – “as long as they want to stay.”
Nakis also confirmed that his group paid “a shade under $10 million” to purchase Schwartz’s from Hy Diamond. Nakis and his granddaughter have 50 per cent of the business, while the Saras and Angélil have the other 50 per cent.
Paul Sara, the father of Eric and Martin, had owned the Nickels chain of restaurants in the 1990s with Angélil. Nakis is owner of the Sir Winston Churchill Pub complex and the Da Giovanni resto on Ste. Catherine St. E., and, along with his daughter, has been involved with two Bâton Rouge franchises.
But although Angélil – and perhaps his bride Céline Dion – will be in town within the next two weeks to break bread and chomp down on a medium smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s, don’t be expecting him to take an active role at the deli, behind the cutters or cash register. It will be left to the Nakises and Saras to run the place on a daily basis.
Diamond’s motive to sell Schwartz’s wasn’t quick profit. He has had health issues over the last year, and wanted to make sure the deli would remain in good, local hands.
“It’s with some sadness that I’ve sold. I’ve had the time of my life with a true Montreal institution,” Diamond said Monday. “The staff has been instrumental in making the place flourish the way it has. But now it’s time to pass the baton. I have full confidence in Paul and his gang to sustain Schwartz’s as a world-class destination.”
Since taking over Schwartz’s in 1999, Diamond had been bombarded with offers to franchise, here and across the continent. In 2004, he had considered opening a Schwartz’s outlet on Crescent St. But after a huge outcry from locals as well as ex-pat Montrealers, Diamond decided there would be only one Schwartz’s.
“Hy will coach me for a while on the running of the place,” Nakis said. “We’ve been friends for a long time and have shared much smoked meat together over the years.”
The deli, founded by Reuben Schwartz, opened for business on Dec. 31, 1928, a few doors away from its present location. It was later owned by Maurice Zbriger and Armande Chartrand, before being bought by Diamond, who had been Schwartz’s accountant for many years.
According to the culinary experts, the key to Schwartz’s smoked-meat success is that no chemicals or preservatives are used in the curing of the beef. Nor does it hurt that the Schwartz’s smoke-house has 84 years of spices embedded in its walls – the “shmutz” factor – giving it its unique taste. All of which would make replicating the smoked meat elsewhere difficult.
Despite the fact that ferns might perish in the place and that its ramshackle-chic interior will never make the pages of Architectural Digest, Schwartz’s attracts tourists and celebs from around the planet and has become as much part of the Montreal lore as, say, Céline.
Its charm lies in the fact that it seats only 61, takes no reservations – everyone waits their turn in line outside, and clients, of all ages and backgrounds, can find themselves crammed in at a table with a bank CEO or a stevedore. It has a inspired a book, a film and, most recently, the hit Schwartz’s: The Musical at the Centaur Theatre.