Editor’s column: Lichter & Levin’s deli sparks interest, and questions

  • Ben Levin and Emily Lichter. PHOTO BY PAX BELMONTE

  • Editor Brooke Hauser.

Published: 11/27/2019 11:13:41 AM

Last Friday, a post on Instagram started some insta-buzz around Northampton: “Lichter & Levin Delicatessen,” read a logo in red, white and blue, “open for brunch and linner.”

The post promised “all of your favorites,” such as matzoh ball soup and knish (rhymes with “delish”), the Eastern European baked snack popularized stateside by Jewish immigrants. It also advertised a website, lldelicatessen.com, selling branded T-shirts and hoodies. But earlier this week, the location of the eatery, when it would open (the website says only “coming soon”) and who is behind it were burning questions for some residents who took to Facebook to gather more intel. “Where? Where? WHERE?” asked one commenter. Even Amy Cahillane, executive director of the Downtown Northampton Association, didn’t know the answer when we emailed her for more info. “For now,” she wrote Monday, “I’m trolling Facebook along with the rest of Northampton, hoping for some details to slip out!” 

We have some details, but before you get too worked up, hold your horseradish. There was some discussion in our newsroom about how to handle this story about a mystery Jewish deli that has yet to open — was it newsworthy? It might be, but it’s too early to say. You know how “Seinfeld” is the show about nothing? Well, this isn’t a story about nothing — it’s definitely about something, but what exactly that something is, well, that’s still being worked out, according to the partners behind the venture, Emily Lichter and Ben Levin.

Both are in the music business. Based in Conway, Lichter manages bands including Lake Street Dive, Sarah Jarosz, and And the Kids. A Northampton resident, Levin is the manager behind Lucius and Aoife O’Donovan. They co-manage the female folk trio I’m With Her. While Lichter says she has worked in “a lot of health food stores,” the partners do not come from restaurant backgrounds. “The very probable answer is we will not be doing this alone,” Levin said. Lichter concurred: “We would need other people.”

A few potential investors have contacted the duo, Lichter said: “Too soon to tell.” The public’s interest speaks to “both of our cravings and how we weren’t the only ones craving” Jewish food, Levin said. Before going public with their idea last week, Lichter and Levin had mused about it for a couple of years. “The joke was, if the music thing doesn’t work out, we’ll start a deli,” Lichter said, speaking by phone Tuesday before joining Monte’s March, the walk against hunger led by River radio host Monte Belmonte. “It’s always been a comfort thing in the back of our minds because the music industry is hell,” she added.

The music thing seems to be working out just fine for the partners, but they are moving ahead with the deli concept anyway. They started with a logo — originally, they wanted to name the business “L&L,” but “Monte was like, ‘You’ve got to make it ‘Lichter & Levin,’” Lichter said.

The merch has a home: Lichter’s house, where she’s storing it (there have been around 20 orders so far). As for the location of the eatery itself? “TBD,” Lichter said. She envisions starting with a popup or portable location, perhaps in the spring, and seeing where that goes. “I think it would be homemade and super A-level,” she said of the food, “like how Captain Jack’s has lobster and onion rings, but it’s the best you can get.”

And what exactly would be on the menu? That’s up for discussion, too.

“I like it all,” said Levin, who keeps a kosher household. “What’s important for us is we really want to try and provide something that a) is simple; b) offers something that can’t be found here; and c) is done in a sustainable and accessible way.

“Here’s the thing, though,” he continued, “it really depends on the day. You could be craving matzoh ball soup one day, and the next day a potato knish, and the next day a half-sour pickle, and the next, a flagel.” A flagel is a flat bagel, which might be extra appealing to the people of Flamp.

Lichter & Levin’s approach is a bit unorthodox, but maybe that’s what Northampton needs right now, as downtown businesses continue to ebb and flow. It seems prudent to test the waters before diving in and to get a sense of what residents really want, whether that’s beer and brat at the soon-to-open Wurst Haus (formerly McLadden’s) or a tempting schmear at a Jewish delicatessen-style who-knows-what.

“Ben and I are both busy, and we’ve put a lot of time into this now, but we’re kinda like, ‘Wow, this could be awesome,’” Lichter said. “I’m not in a position in my life to open a food establishment that’s going to not last. But if the community’s involved with what’s on the menu … who knows what it could end up being?”

Levin added that they want to manage expectations. “I think the worst thing we could do is build this up into a big buzz thing,” he said. “We’re taking things one step at a time.”

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