Kohn’s is for sale. St. Louis’ only kosher deli has served pastrami and community for 6 decades
Jock Winbush was taking a shortcut from Lindbergh Boulevard to Olive Boulevard in Creve Coeur a few years ago, when he saw a sign on a building for Kohn’s Kosher Meat and Deli. On an impulse, he stopped in the store and tasted the pastrami. He thought it was the best he’d ever had.
“They always treat me nice. While you’re waiting, they overfeed you,” Winbush said. “I don’t want any more samples. I’m full as I could be when I leave here.”
Filling bellies has been Kohn’s mission since it opened in 1963. It’s been serving St. Louis’ Jewish and non-Jewish community an array of meats, knishes, soups and salads ever since. But the family-owned business may soon be in new hands. Earlier this month, the store went up for sale, causing patrons like Winbush to do a little panic-buying.
“I’ve been stocking up on killer pastrami because I don’t know where else I’ll be able to get it if they’re going to go,” he said.
Winbush won’t necessarily be losing his favorite deli. The store is listed on Lawyers Realty Co. at $875,000 for the business and $1.4 million for the property. But the Kohn’s owner, Lenny Kohn, said part of the stipulation of the sale is that the business retain the name and remain kosher.
That’s important for the store’s Jewish clientel. Kohn’s is the only kosher butcher and deli in the region.
“Oh, man. Who’s going to buy it? Hopefully somebody Jewish,” said Michael Levi when he heard the news. “It’s good to have a kosher place to go to every once in a while to get food here. There’s no other place.”
Levi, who recently moved to St. Louis from Los Angeles, called Kohn’s “cute” in comparison to what he’s used to. But he also recognizes what makes it special — beyond the kosher food.
“You know what’s the best part about it, one time I was here and there was a lady waiting on line," Levi recalled. “She was waiting for a while. And he ended up just bringing her some pastrami. That would never happen any other place.”
In St. Louis, Jews who keep kosher can buy kosher chicken and beef at several supermarket chains, but Kohn’s is the only place they can go for brisket or lamb or cold cuts. But only 5% of St. Louis’s 60,000 Jews identify as Orthodox, which is likely not enough to keep a store in business for so long.
The reason Kohn’s has stayed viable is largely due to the store’s current owners. Lenny Kohn and his sister Rosemary took the store over from his parents in 1979. Under their watch, the shop grew from a small storefront in Jeffrey Plaza, a strip mall on Olive Boulevard in University City, to a good-size, stand-alone shop on Old Olive Street Road in Creve Coeur — with tentacles in many businesses.
Kohn was determined to offer his customers an up-to-date shopping experience, with the same kind of selection that people would find in non-kosher stores, he said. He looked at the side dishes offered in the deli and figured he could do better. For inspiration, he would go to other grocery stores and see what they were offering.
“I used to go to Whole Foods and look at the different kinds of salads they had in their deli and then come here and make them,” he said. “Like the edamame salad, I saw that there first. But now we have a zillion salads in our deli. It’s one of the nicest cases ever. We outdo Whole Foods by miles.”
Kohn saw opportunities everywhere. He bought a kosher bakery, Pratzels, and added that into the store. He expanded the company’s catering business. He started selling wholesale and even made kosher meals for Air France. He built up his website so people from all over the country could order food from him; a service that was in high demand during the height of the pandemic, he said.
About eight years ago, he opened a concession stand in Busch Stadium where baseball fans can enjoy kosher hot dogs and Kohn’s “killer” pastrami sandwich.
“That’s given us a lot of bounce back business,” Kohn said. “People go down there and they see what we have and then they say, ‘Oh, you have a store? Where’s it at?’ And I say, ‘It’s in Creve Coeur.’ So then they come out and visit us and they say, ‘Oh, it’s awesome stuff and it’s cheaper than the stadium.’ and so they love it. And it’s just a whole new clientele for us.”
The Kohn’s experience
Walking into Kohn’s Kosher Meats and Deli is like walking into a bygone era. There’s a small section of the store where you can buy packaged goods and a seating area where people eat. But the store is dominated by two large glass cases placed perpendicular to each other. One is for the butcher, the other for the deli. If you stand in front of either for too long, someone is bound to ask bluntly, “What are you here for?”
To the newcomer, it could seem like the employees are being rude. But Kohn’s regulars are used to it. It’s as much a part of the Kohn’s experience as it is to get free samples while you wait.
“I’ve tried stuff I’ve never tried before,” said Jock Winbush. “Like, I hadn’t ever had falafel balls. He said, ‘Here try this,’ and those were good. Every time I come here there’s something new for me.”
While the customers are noshing on the food, Lenny Kohn is buzzing around the store, answering calls from customers, inspecting deliveries, helping make the prepared foods and letting the butcher know that someone is waiting for help at the counter.
It’s hard to imagine Kohn, who’s 64, will be able to sit still once the store sells.
“I’ve been doing it for a long time — whatever, 40-something years, every day — and it’s time to turn it over.” Kohn said. He said his three children all have their own careers and aren’t interested in taking over.
“The business is as busy as we ever have been, and it’s time for me to make a move,” he said. “I’m happy where we’re at with the business, the level of business we’re doing and what we’re doing and our name around the country. But just mentally I’m ready to do something different. I’m not ready to just sit in a chair, I’m going to have to do some work to figure out what I’m going to do. But I’m ready to move on.”
Kohn said he feels lucky to have worked for so long with his parents. He said he had a lot of arguments over the years, especially with his father.
But Kohn recognizes that his father’s hard work paved the way for him.
Bobbi and Simon Kohn were Holocaust survivors who came to the States after World War II. Simon apprenticed to be a butcher and eventually went into business with Wolf Diamond and his son, Irv Diamond, who had a shop on North & South in University City. Lenny said his father had a falling-out with the Diamonds on a Friday in 1963.
“So my dad took his percentage out of there and left,” Lenny said. “It’s really unbelievable. On Saturday, that same shabbos, there was a store on Olive Street in U City, called Sorkin's. And my dad called him up on Saturday night after shabbos, bought the store that night and opened up that Sunday.”
The entire Kohn family worked in the store in one way or another. Lenny Kohn remembers standing on a milk crate behind the counter to serve customers. After he graduated from the University of Missouri, Kohn officially went into business with his parents in 1979.
His parents were always working, he said.
“They were here all the time. The difference between them and me is when they went home, they carried the store with them all the time. Which, you know, they built it from nothing,” Kohn said. “But when I leave here, I really leave, unless there’s something really odd that’s bothering me.”
Bobbi and Simon Kohn continued to work in the store until they died — Simon in 2013 and Bobbi in 2015. Lenny Kohn said his parents were around to see the store develop and grow. “Well, they were part of it. They had to put up with a lot of my baloney.”
The store’s longevity means that families have been patronizing Kohn’s for generations. Bonnie Davis is one of those customers. She said she’s been shopping at Kohn’s her whole life, just as her mother had done for at least 30 years.
“My strongest memories of my mom coming in and being connected to Lenny’s mom and dad for so many years,” Davis said. “He’s catered shiva for us and shiva for my friends. When you go back this many years there’s just so many things that you can think of he’s done that have been great for our family. We’ve been connected for many many years.”
Those kinds of connections are important to Kohn as well. He’s still happiest when the store is buzzing with customers.
“That's probably the thing that gives me the best feeling,” Kohn said. “Just the people we’ve taken care of over the years. And they show a lot of gratitude to me. If we’re successful with this sale, I’m leaving with a happy heart.”
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