How a Berkeley Deli Is Rethinking Its Business to Stay Open

Chef Mike C. behind the counter at Augie’s Montreal Deli in Berkeley. (Brian Watt/KQED)

Thousands of businesses have had to close because they’re not deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others have had to rethink how they do business in order to stay open. Restaurants are among them.

Augie’s Montreal Deli in Berkeley employed 15 people a month ago. But when the coronavirus pandemic forced the shutdown of the sit-down portion of the business, the staff list withered to just two employees helping co-owners Lex Gopnik-Lewinski and chef Mike C. prepare and fill take-out orders. So the restaurant enhanced their offerings to meet the moment.

“We’ve started putting together some meal kits for folks,” Gopnik-Lewinski said.

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You can still get the Montreal-style smoked brisket and poutine that have attracted customers seeking Canadian comfort food. But now, the smoked meat also appears in a spaghetti sauce sold with a quart of pasta, and in the mac and cheese. Another offering? Matzo ball soup — frozen so that people can save it for later.

The idea is to shift from a restaurant business to a market, and Augie’s got a blessing from the city of Berkeley to do just that.

This week they added some non-food coronavirus essentials: toilet paper, paper towels and spray cleaner. They’re also selling eggs and some produce. Gopnik-Lewinski warns their prices on those items are going to be higher than grocery stores because they can’t buy in the same bulk.

Chef Mike C. practices good Canadian social distancing by using a hockey stick as a mic boom as co-owner Lex Gopnik-Lewinski talks to KQED.
Chef Mike C. practices good Canadian social distancing by using a hockey stick as a mic boom as co-owner Lex Gopnik-Lewinski talks to KQED. (Brian Watt/KQED)

“We figure the way things have gone in other countries, we’re going to be in full lockdown mode, and only pharmacies and markets are going to be open,” Gopnik-Lewinski said. “So we’re going to try to relieve some of the pressure on markets like Safeway and Berkeley Bowl that have just been overwhelmed.”

Augie’s is just a few blocks away from Berkeley Bowl West, where the wait just to enter the supermarket has regularly been 15 to 20 minutes since shelter-in-place orders went into effect.

The deli-turned-market is using technology from Oakland-based NumberAI that allows people to text orders in to Augie’s phone number, then drive over to the shop where someone will bring the food and other items ordered out to the car.

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Inside, the restaurant's chairs are all turned upside down on the tables like at closing time – a very different vibe from last year when fans of the Toronto Raptors sat politely next to fans of the Golden State Warriors and watched the NBA Finals.

But Augie’s is at least staying open, for now, despite an 80% drop in overall sales.

Augie’s is also offering two free extra meal items to health care workers with identification. Gopnik-Lewinski is married to a physician, so for him, the gesture is an important one.

“It’s definitely a hard time,” he said. "This is not something that’s going to be solved or fixed by one person. If we don’t all work together at this time right now, it’s just going to get worse. It’s going to take longer and longer. So we’ve got to be patient and we’ve got to really be out there to support and help each other. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”