Alan Kaufman, the Last (Pickle) Man Standing
"It's a shame," says Kaufman. "I used to make the pickles for Guss. I started in 1981, when there were four or five pickle stores on my block alone. I've seen them all close."
While he says he hasn't had a chance to talk to Guss' owners about their upcoming move, Kaufman, who opened his Essex Street store in 2003, bemoans the loss of competition. "It's good; it keeps everybody on their toes. Now, I hope our customers will keep us on our toes."
Business at Kaufman's Essex Street store has been "very good," he says. His second store, on Coney Island Avenue, is "paying its bills; it needs to grow." Adapting to the appetites and dietary needs of an aging and shifting customer base has provided Kaufman with perspective on the way the Lower East Side has changed in recent years. "When you get to a certain age, you're not allowed to have salt," he says of the older customers who used to make up the majority of his clientele. "But they'll cheat once in awhile. And then we get their kids and grandkids. I may lose their parents, but I gain their kids."
His customers, he adds, are a mix of tourists, regulars, and religious Jews. "Sunday is mostly tourists. Friday is all Shabbas customers." During the week, it's all three, and "we ship, too."
Kaufman's store is the last on a street that's had pickle stores since 1910, he says. Unsurprisingly, he feels that the Lower East Side that he knew, with "Orthodox Jews running around like crazy," has been "dying for awhile. We lost Gertel's, and the dried fruit and nuts place. The rents are too expensive for the products we're selling; we're not selling diamonds."
And the new businesses that have been moving in don't help to attract customers to their old-school neighbors. "I'm not putting art galleries down, but there's four on my block alone," Kaufman says. "It draws no business to any stores on the block. If you're going to an art gallery, you're not looking to buy sporting goods." He'd like to see a kosher dairy restaurant move in instead, or a kosher Chinese restaurant like Bernstein's.
As for the future of his own store, Kaufman says that while he has no plans to leave Essex Street, "our lease will be coming up shortly. We'll have to renegotiate. Hopefully, our landlord will be gentle."
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