Amid the rye bread, spices and steaming smoked meat, there was a whiff of something new at Montreal's fabled Schwartz's deli on Monday: A possible change in ownership.
A Montreal businessman and restaurateur confirmed he's part of a group of investors that includes René Angélil, husband of singer Celine Dion, that is close to a deal to acquire the landmark on St. Laurent Boulevard.
"There are just a few things that remain. Most important of all: the signing," Paul Nakis said in an interview.
Rumours have circulated for days that the Montreal restaurant was changing hands, a development that brought a degree of concern to legions of fans. Schwartz's is less a restaurant than a religion, its devotees ranging from prime ministers to Hollywood actresses to legions of tourists who are happy to wait in line in the cold for the chance to bite into a smoked-meat sandwich while crammed at a worn table with strangers.
Schwartz's has not only given Montreal one of its most famous culinary gifts to the world: It has inspired a book, a documentary and a hit musical.
Mr. Nakis said he hopes for an agreement within a week that would hand over the 84-year-old deli to new backers. He would not confirm the reported $10-million price tag.
Part of Schwartz's success is its resistance to change, however, and some fear that new owners would try to gussy up the un-chic decor or try to franchise the restaurant, turning an institution into McSchwartz's and destroying its mystique or worse, its smoked meat.
The current owner, Hy Diamond, had considered but resisted expansion, which provoked a public backlash. He has said that there's only one Carnegie Hall, one Pavarotti and one Schwartz's.
Mr. Nakis said that there are no plans for replicating the restaurant for now.
"There's definitely potential, but we haven't discussed anything like that among us," he said. "We don't have any expansions or anything in mind."
He said upgrades to the establishment, a narrow space jammed with tables, counter stools and careening waiters, would be limited to updating the equipment. "We wouldn't change the look of it or anything, it's all part of the character of the place, which is important."
Mr. Nakis said Mr. Angélil has become involved in the purchase through his cousin, Paul Sara. The two were involved in the Nickels chain of restaurants in the 1990s. Mr. Nakis is an owner of the Sir Winston Churchill Pub in downtown Montreal and other establishments. Ms. Dion, although a regular at Schwartz's, is not part of the potential transaction, he said.
Schwartz's has been in the hands of Mr. Diamond since 1999. However, Mr. Diamond has been ready to sell for health reasons, Mr. Nakis said.
"It's a good deal for both sides," he said, adding that he has been friends with Mr. Diamond for more than 40 years. "If anybody should have it, it should be me."
Mr. Diamond did not respond to requests for comment.
Frank Silva, general manager of the restaurant, said business is booming, although talk of the restaurant's sale has been met with some concerns from staff. He said opening new branches is always possible "if it's done right," although he knows that replicating Schwartz's would be a dicey proposition; the deli opened a spanking new takeout outlet next door to the restaurant a few years ago, but people prefer waiting in line for a seat at the original.
"We still get 200 people waiting in line to get in," Mr. Silva said as staff sliced mounds of smoked meat and towers of rye bread in preparation for the lunchtime rush. "This place cannot be duplicated."
Schwartz's was opened as the Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen on New Year's Eve in 1928 by Romanian immigrant Reuben Schwartz, a few doors from its current location.