This week marks 70 years since Mermelstein Caterers became a Kingston Ave landmark. Despite the rapidly evolving Jewish food scene, many prefer them and their traditional Jewish dishes. Their customers included Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka and the White House…
By Anash.org reporter
In the 1960s, Rebbetzin Chana recommended Mermelstein Caterers to a young couple for Shabbos takeout. Decades later, and despite the rapidly evolving Jewish food scene, the restaurant still stands, serving steaming plates of traditional goulash, potato knishes, latkes and other traditional foods.
Founded in the 1950s by Mr. Edmond and Mrs. Bernice Mermelstein, the shop, described by Chabad.org as “one of the last true kosher luncheonettes” moved into its current location on 9 Cheshvan 5714 – October 18, 1953. In the seven decades since it has obtained a quasi-landmark status in Crown Heights, and is seen as an integral part of the community’s food offerings.
Today, the shop is owned by Meyer Cohen, who continues in the footsteps of his predecessors, doling out the traditional food in the shop and at catered events.
In honor of the shop’s 70th anniversary, Meyer spoke to Anash.org and related some of the rich history that comes along with the food and what he says is his secret to success.
“I came to the United States of America in the spring of 1979 along with my two younger sisters. The Mermelstein family, who owned the takeout store at that time, took in my sisters and raised them like their own children,” he recalls.
“A few years later in the early 80s, I started working at Mermelstein Takeout as a part-time employee. Over the years I took over more responsibilities, and by 1999 I purchased the business from Mr. Edmond and Mrs. Bernice Mermelstein with a mutual agreement to keep Mrs. Berger, a sister of Mr. Mermelstein, as an employee.”
When he took over the shop, he knew he was taking over more than just a restaurant. It was almost a piece of Chabad history. For many years, the Rebbetzin would purchase food from Mermelstein for Shabbos, and the shop also supplied food for the Rebbe’s Shabbos farbrengens.
The Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana, was also a customer, and she even recommended the shop to others. In a recent interview, long-time London shliach and educator Rabbi Shmuel Lew recalled when Rebbetzin Chana suggested his wife shop there for Shabbos.
“Shortly after our marriage, Rebbetzin Chana told my wife, in English: ‘When things are a bit pressed and it’s not easy to get it all together yourself, you can go to Mermelstein and buy ready-made for Shabbos.'” Rebbetzin Chana then turned to Rabbi Lew and said, in Yiddish: ‘I knew they can be relied on.’
On at least one occasion, the caterer’s food was trucked down to Washington, D.C., to be served at a White House reception honoring the Rebbe’s 81st birthday.
In March of 1983, in an article titled “In Honoring the Rebbe, a Caterer Did Well, Too,” Francis X. Clines—a White House correspondent for The New York Times during the Reagan administration and later a member of its editorial board—offered a lighthearted look into how official Washington celebrated the Rebbe’s 81st birthday, as well as the personality of the Brooklyn-based caterer who helped officials make it happen:
“The White House Office of Public Liaison, recently purged for its alleged failure to keep the President in favor with such specialized constituencies as women, racial minorities and religious groups, did something right today. So did Mermelstein the caterer from Brooklyn.
“The public liaison office arranged to have President Reagan gently honor the 81st birthday of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, as he is known.”
Clines describes how the owner of Mermelstein Caterers, unaccustomed to such grand events, nevertheless trucked poached salmon, potato knishes and other kosher delicacies from his Brooklyn storefront to 300 people gathered on Capitol Hill:
“‘I’m nervous for two days,’ said Eddie Mermelstein, hovering about his food as it was set out in Senate caucus room 1202 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, far from his kitchens on Kingston Avenue. ‘There’s nothing kosher in the Capitol, so we have to do it this way. But it’s an honor to serve the Rebbe’s guests.’ ”
In the decades since Mermelstein opened, the Jewish food scene has evolved many times over, and Crown Heights has seen a host of restaurants. Some lasted longer than others, but none can boast of a record close to Mermelstein’s.
When asked for his secret, Meyer had a simple answer to give.
“Over the years we have had the privilege of serving a haimish and tasteful meal to our customers at a very reasonable price. Although the food market has changed greatly, there are still those who appreciate a real haimish meal, and our customers’ loyalty has kept us afloat throughout all these decades.
And when asked what his favorite part of his job was, he said “It is an honor and privilege to be of service to the community…”
L’chaim to many more years!