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The menu at Mensch. Jewish Delicatessen is minimal, but owner Nitzan Cohen sells out almost everyday.
The menu at Mensch. Jewish Delicatessen is minimal, but owner Nitzan Cohen sells out almost everyday.

THE DISH

B.C. food-preneurs get creative to fight lack of affordable restaurant space Add to ...

The hot pastrami sandwich at Mensch. Jewish Delicatessen is a slow, singular labour of love born from passion, patience and Vancouver’s emerging micro pop-up economy.

Each sandwich takes more than a week to prepare. The whole beef briskets are smoked for eight hours, wet-brined for 10 days and steamed for four hours, before being hand-sliced into thick, fatty slabs piled high between soft, unseeded rye bread simply spread with Dijon mustard. They are deliciously juicy and tooth-sinking tender – more like smoked steak than standard deli meat – and unlike any pastrami sandwich you’ll find from here to Portland.

But the process of creating Vancouver’s only New York-style deli was an even longer, two-year-plus incubation that involved shared smokers, borrowed restaurants and a two-month trial period in the front end of a converted butcher shop near Broadway and Fraser that now operates (in the back) as a communal kitchen.

“No one here was making pastrami from scratch,” says Mensch’s chef-owner Nitzan Cohen, who turned his pop-up deli into a permanent storefront last week. “I wanted to do it for years, but I had no capital. I have kids. I need to pay the bills. I couldn’t open my own place right away.”

The lack of affordable restaurant space is a serious problem facing many aspiring cooks in Vancouver. Restaurant rents now average $10,000 a month. Even commissaries can be difficult to juggle. Recently, however, a growing class of innovative food-preneurs have begun cooking up unconventional business plans by starting off small in shared spaces, filling up chef residencies and slowly peddling their niche products from pop-ups to permanent fixtures.

Three summers ago, sisters Andrea and Stephanie French were roasting coffee on their Kitsilano rooftop and selling it at farmer’s markets. When the summer ended, they decided to try something more permanent. They signed a six-month lease on a 300-square-foot storefront in Chinatown and added homemade pie to the menu. The Pie Shoppe was born: sweet, simple and suddenly a wildly popular last-minute, go-to stop for young hipsters on their way home to see the folks for Sunday-night dinner.

Their successful pie business soon outgrew their Gore Street shoebox. “We were on top of each other, trying to get things done,” Stephanie says. “It was absolute chaos during holidays.”

Last month, they moved The Pie Shoppe into a much larger storefront on Powell Street and turned their old space into a short-term chef residency. Available by the week or month, the Chinatown pop-up comes with all the built-in bells and whistles, including a commercial convection oven, fridge, freezers, sinks, work benches, hydro, Internet and community of supportive clients.

“A lot of people dream of opening their own place, but it’s really expensive,” Stephanie says. “When you’re just starting out, nobody tells you that it costs $8,000 just to put in a grease trap.”

Stephanie sees the space as a learning tool for “food creatives.”

“Some of them might fail, but at least they’ll learn in a very inexpensive way,” she says.

So far, the space has been rented by a sourdough baker and a dumpling maker. Applications are still being taken for October. Come November, Chams Sbouai – a.k.a., Sweet Boy Cream Puffs – will be moving in for a six-month residency. The French-trained pastry chef, formerly of Royal Dinette restaurant, spent the summer peddling his divine cream-filled choux pastries on the streets of East Vancouver from a bicycle cart, having raised the funds for his startup through a Kickstarter campaign.

“I’m not sure if I want to open my own shop,” says Mr. Sbouai, who will be winding up his weather-dependent mobile business this week. “But this is very low risk. It’s a good way to practice, without having to work for the man.”

Mr. Cohen’s Mensch started with a similar sentiment. Tired of working long hours with little security or remuneration, he left his high-stress job as chef de cuisine at Blackbird Public House to take a lower position with a catering company, allowing him more time to perfect his pastrami (which differs from Montreal smoked meat primarily through the wet brine and some subtle differences in the secret blend of spices).

Fiona Grieve, the owner of Buckstop BBQ, gave him the keys to her West End restaurant and free run of her electric smoker. Later, when she opened a second restaurant, Grotto, he used her excess kitchen space, alongside a few other part-time food-preneurs. When it came time to test his recipe on the public, he organized a pop-up brunch at PiDGiN restaurant in the Downtown Eastside, using the kitchen space at Save On Meats for his prep work. Scout Magazine posted a notice on its website and the brunch sold out within a day.

After a few more successful brunches, Mr. Cohen took the next small step by renting an empty butcher shop for a two-month trial period. He used the front as a lunch counter, and shared the back kitchen with a guy who makes beef jerky for most of the craft breweries around town.

“Pastrami is a really heavy dish,” he explains. “I thought if I could make it successful during the hot summer months, the worst time to eat pastrami, and when half the city is gone, then maybe I could really do this.”

Mensch went from pop-up to permanent fixture last week, with newly extended hours and take-home pastrami available by the pound. The menu is still minimal – just four sandwiches (including a toasted Reuben, beet-cured gravlax and egg salad), sweet noodle kugel for dessert and twisted chocolate babkas on Fridays. But he sells out almost every day, didn’t need the help of an investor and hasn’t lost any of his own money

“Some people in the Jewish community, especially the older crowd, are disappointed because I don’t have chopped liver or coleslaw,” Mr. Cohen says. “They want yellow mustard, they want the meat sliced thinner, but that’s not what I do. If you come to me, you come to me because this is what I do. I don’t cut any corners. I’m doing it my way.”

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