zaftigs interiorI’ve got Bob Shuman on the phone, co-owner with his wife, Holly, of Zaftig’s, and his answers to my questions are coming as quick as the servers bring out the complimentary bagel chips and dip at one of his restaurants—and as kindly and enthusiastically. Which is to say, very.

I say “one of,” because—though those in the Boston metro-area might not know—Zaftig’s has had another location open in Natick for one year, what their website calls Zaftig’s West.

Specifically, Shuman tells me that the newish location has “proved to be as successful as Brookline,” citing a booming deli retail business: their smoked salmon, white fish and pickles are brought up from New York City and their bread and bagels are delivered from Worcester.

The opportunity to expand to a branch in Natick, Shuman explains, “fell in our lap,” as a deli closed in the Sherwood Plaza on Worcester Street and he and his wife made them an offer.

But let’s back up to the start of the first Zaftig’s on Harvard Street in Brookline.

Shuman was at the head of another eatery, Appetito, when he was bought out in 1997. In June of that year, after having seen the current Zaftig’s space turn over a number of times because of failed enterprises, the Shumans opened this establishment’s doors. As a way of acknowledging what has made his restaurant work where others had not found success, Shuman states “the fundamentals of this business are not that difficult; it’s the execution.”

zaftigs frontSo how did they decide on the name for their new Brookline business? Shuman says they knew they “wanted to use Yiddish,” finally choosing the word he defines as meaning ripe, luscious or overstuffed, as concerning a woman. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary entry for the locution is: “(of a woman) having a full rounded figure; pleasingly plump,” from the Yiddish for juicy or succulent, with a first known use around 1936. The Brookline restaurateur adds that it is “a term of endearment.”

He says, with that name, people were at first critical of the non-Kosher-ness of the offerings or wondered if his place was “cooking for overweight people.”

When I asked about the locally-famous portrait of a zaftig older woman that serves as Zaftig’s de facto logo, Shuman reveals the inspiration was his grandmother Fanny, know to him as Granny Fanny, and which was originally painted by a friend’s brother.

The other artwork on the walls of Zaftig’s is equally original and creative, with still-lifes and genre pieces that have a local flavor, including a picture of Shuman’s Dad at the proprietor’s bar mitzvah and Shuman’s grandfather in front of his market in the 1920s. An artist that he enjoys working with is Danny O’Connor, who, Shuman informs me, works mainly in collage and whom can he can talk with about an idea for a piece. O’Connor then is able to, ably, translate it into art. “Jewish-American Delicatessen” is how Shuman responds when I inquire about the proper terming of Zaftig’s’ cuisine, adding that there is an “Eastern European core to the menu,” which is “driven by breakfast” that is served all day and is one of the deli’s most popular features. Dressings, by the way, are all house-made and the meat is roasted in house.

He lists the two main menu attractions—those that are ordered most—as potato pancakes (or latkes) and chicken soup, the former coming three-to-an-order, made from golden Yukon potatoes, scallions, white onions and cooked in chicken fat.

An interrogatory about the business’ involvement in the community is met with an “Oh, my goodness,” followed by Shuman explaining that his kids went to Brookline schools and that his family has been commercially tied to the town for over 15 years. This said by way of affirming that they have been deeply invested. A quick, off-the-top-of-his-head detailing includes catering brisses, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and funerals; charitable contributions to local schools, the Coolidge Theatre, the Brookline Teen Center and Emergency Food Pantry. Zaftig’s has provided provisions for the summertime Brookline Food Fest for the last three years and donated to the recent wrap-up dinner at the Fireplace for the BrooklineHub Feed Brookline Drive.

As we return to talk of the relatively new location, Shuman admits that “building business in a down economy is a challenge, but we’re up for it.” He names the employees as the venture’s greatest assets, concluding our chat by advising that “working in a team is how you operate, succeed with this [type of] business.”

By Andrew Palmacci