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Why some wait in long lines for Schwartz’s smoked meat
- Gabe Nisker

On a sunny Friday afternoon, I stood at the corner of Saint-Laurent and Napoleon. The line at Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen was 30, maybe 40, people deep. Just outside the door to the 61-seat restaurant, first opened in 1928, the line went down the block: Customers were waiting all the way to the street corner for the fabled smoked meat sandwiches.

On that particular day, I was meeting Garry Beitel, the Montreal-based documentarian and course instructor of McGill’s JWST 309: Jews in Film. Beitel is the filmmaker of Chez Schwartz, the poster for which hangs on the walls of the restaurant among signed celebrity photographs. I figured that Beitel’s expertise could help me understand the greater significance of the place I’ve been visiting since I was little.

“I’ve seen lineups at 10 [degrees] below, 20 below,” Beitel said, “but not to the extent that you see on a hot day like today, where you are waiting 45 minutes to an hour.”

Bill Brownstein, Montreal Gazette columnist and author of Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story, understands better than most the impulse to wait 45 minutes for a sandwich. He’s been visiting the deli since the mid-1950s, when he made his inaugural trip prior to a Canadian Football League game.

“The tourists have it on their bucket list of things to do while they’re in Montreal,” Brownstein said. “They’ll wait because they’ve heard the stories, it’s in the travel books, and they’ve read the write-ups of the place everywhere.”

Lines are one of life’s tedious necessities: We wait in line at the grocery store, for doctor’s appointments, at the bank for an available ATM, or even just to get into class in Leacock 132. To better represent the psychology behind the practice, queue theorists have created basic queueing formulas to help us understand how long we’re willing to wait. Amy Ward, the Rothman Family professor of Operations Management at the University of Chicago, researches how customer unpredictability and uniqueness plays into service operations like restaurants. With complex mathematics, Ward can model the way some customers will wait, accounting for factors such as personal preferences and service capacity. Ward explained that the Schwartz’s line may be a case of the most classic queueing formula.

“As you increase the load on your system, which, if you think about your restaurant situation, you’ve got a fixed capacity and you’re increasing the load, the waiting time for your customers is going up exponentially,” Ward said. “So, maybe one of the things you’re seeing is actually a little bit of this basic queuing formula in action [....] You have all these tourists coming over the summer, and you don’t just see linear increases in the wait time, you see non-linear exponential increases in the wait time, and that’s part of what’s resulting in these super long lines.”

Schwartz’s reputation precedes it, which adds to the restaurant’s allure.

“Montreal has a reputation for smoked meat throughout North America,” Beitel said. “Montreal-style smoked meat is advertised in many, many cities and [those smoked meats are] not Schwartz’s smoked meat [....] There’s a kind of aura. You’re coming to a place that everybody comes to, right? It’s part of the Montreal experience.”

“There’s a kind of aura. You’re coming to a place that everybody comes to, right? It’s part of the Montreal experience.”

Montreal smoked meat is a term given to brisket, a cut of meat from the lower chest of the steer, that has been spiced and brined in a specific European style and allowed to sit for weeks to generate its unique flavour. While the question of who was first to introduce the meat to the Montreal area is an oft-debated topic, Schwartz’s is one of the original six delis in the Jewish quarter of Montreal and, at this point, by far the most popular.

Brownstein opens the first chapter of his book by recounting a decision from the restaurant’s more recent history that may have reduced the wait times at the establishment. Conflicted about the question of franchising in 2004, then-owner Hy Diamond (Schwartz’s has since been sold to Celine Dion and partners) put the matter up for a poll in the Montreal Gazette. 68 per cent of respondents voted for the restaurant to franchise. Ultimately, however, Diamond elected not to open that second location on Crescent Street, opting instead to expand catering services.

“I was simply overwhelmed by the response,” Diamond told Brownstein. “But we’re one of a kind, and, to stay that way, the staff and I decided there could only be one location. Besides, how could we ever duplicate the aroma and the ambiance—such as it is—and the smokehouse? And the grill, which was bought second-hand 76 years ago. Sure, I was torn and tempted, but the feeling was [that] such a move could dilute the product. Worse, if customers didn’t like the new location, it could kill us altogether. [...] There is only one Carnegie Hall. There is only one Pavarotti. And there is only one Schwartz’s.”

While making his documentary, Beitel remembers that the decision of whether or not to franchise was an ongoing dilemma for the restaurant.

“There was a sense that there was something pure about the one place that you have to wait 45 minutes in line for,” Beitel said. “If you franchise it, you’re going to lose that, because one franchise will lead to another and eventually you can get Schwartz’s anywhere. It’s not about the smoked meat, it’s about the aura associated with the unique place in the world [where] you can get this sandwich.”

Though Schwartz’s charm is undoubtedly unique, other cities have similar phenomena. Dr. Richard Larson, the Mitsui Professor of Data, Systems, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, immediately latched onto his own Boston-area example: The famous Mike's Pastry.

“If I wanted to go buy something at Mike’s Pastry, I would just go in the off-hours and not have any wait at all but [for] the tourists, there seem to be these rush hours,” Larson said.

Schwartz’s also has rush hours: It might be possible to procure a Schwartz’s sandwich in the off-hours—for instance, according to Beitel, 7:30 in the evening on the right day—but out-of-town visitors don’t often have the luxury of waiting for such an opportunity.

Larson believes the queue provides an excellent chance for participants to make connections, especially given that there is already a common bond between two individuals eagerly waiting for the same item.

“Waiting in a line is a superlative opportunity to have face-to-face and eyeball-to-eyeball contact with other human beings and to introduce yourself and to find out who they are,” Larson said. “Who knows? You may even make friends. I even know people who got married to people they met that way.”

Ultimately, though, it’s the thought of what happens inside those famous four walls that makes it worth the wait. Inside, customers devour the sandwiches alongside plates of French fries, pickles, and coleslaw. Finally taking a seat at a shared table and placing an order is exciting, just as waiting in lines to purchase concert tickets may be. Larson calls these kinds of lines celebratory queues.

“When [the iPhone X] was first announced, there were celebratory queues in London and the US and elsewhere,” Larson said. “People would wait two or three days to be the first on their block to buy an iPhone. It’s a light, memorable thing that, when they’re 85 years old, they’ll brag to the [grandkids about]—‘Hey, I was the first to get an iPhone. I only waited for two and a half days. We had a party, it was a party time.’ So, you can convert a negative experience into a social experience.”

Beitel agrees that the wait is critical to the dining experience. He knows the off-hours, but knows why others would rather come at peak times. “I think [the wait] is partly what people want,” Beitel said. “They want to be part of the wait of getting into a reputed place that has a payoff at the end.” Once inside, service is speedy: The food comes out quickly, such that the line along the street keeps moving. Once you’re in, you’ll be out in no more than 20 or 30 minutes.

“I think [the wait] is partly what people want. They want to be part of the wait of getting into a reputed place that has a payoff at the end.”

“The turnover is really fast, so what you’re eating is a hot, fresh piece of meat that has just come out of the steamer,” Beitel said. “[And] if you go in the back, it’s just two guys who are working the french fries and the oil and as they get an order, they put the fries into the bag [or on the plate] and send it out. [...] It’s still handmade.”

A Schwartz’s experience is fulfilling in every way, from the line, to the nearly bloated feeling you get after finishing your sandwich, to the service you receive while dining. The waiters and employees are well-known to be short with customers, who in turn admire it as part of their restaurant experience. Brownstein should know: While writing his book, he had an opportunity to work a few shifts.

“The waiters developed a certain cache [for] being brusque,” Brownstein said. “I spent a couple of weeks behind the counter, dealing with customers, which was very interesting and fascinating. You would see [a lot of] young people, [a lot of] vegans falling off the wagon, and people coming in from all around the world and not knowing much about smoked meat other than [that] they heard about it. Someone would ask if they could have mayonnaise on the sandwich which is, of course, absolutely just so wrong on so many levels, or have it on white bread or whatever. And [I served] a lot of tourists from all over the place, like Australia, Japan, China.”

The speed with which the sandwich arrives often makes a trip to Schwartz’s feel like a long wait for take-out, a service which, in fact, is carried out in a whole separate line. In November 2008, the restaurant added a take-out counter next door. Sometimes that line snakes longer than that for the dine-in. Brownstein waited there just last month in his most recent Schwartz’s visit for a sandwich.

“Even there, I had to wait about 15, 20 minutes,” Brownstein said. “But you wait your turn, that’s the nice thing. The place is very democratic. There’s no special favours for anybody. [When you go to sit-down,] you sit at tables and dine with bank presidents and bank robbers sitting at the same table.”

As a result, the line to dine in may feel—and actually be—smaller than its next-door neighbour.

“You’ve got some of these people who are coming into the restaurant [...] saying ‘Oh, my gosh this line’s too long, I’m gonna go away,’ and the fact that you’re losing certain customers is what’s going to mitigate [any exponential increase in wait-time],” Ward said.

Those customers may skip across the street to The Main deli, a full-service restaurant that also carries a delicious smoked-meat sandwich.

“The irony is that there is a good place across the street, The Main, but they won’t necessarily plod to that,” Brownstein said. “There are a lot of great delis in the city: There’s Lester’s, there’s the Main, there’s Snowdon Deli, places like that. It’s just that this is the one that has become the most famous over the years so [...] maybe they come for the smoked meat, but they want a piece of the history that they’ve heard about.”

Beitel concurs that it’s more about the establishment than the sandwich.

“You go to The Main to avoid the lineup, but you’re having a different kind of experience,” Beitel said. “The Main serves all sorts of things, not just smoked meat and pickles and fries, but Schwartz’s has maintained the purity of its menu over the years. That adds to the aura of the place that you don’t want to lose out on by going across the street and getting a quick sandwich that you’re enjoying but you’re always wondering ‘Am I missing out because I did that?’”

Food has a way of bringing people together; consider the way that six people who have never met may sit at the same Schwartz’s table, sharing a unique dining experience as they bite into their medium-fat smoked meat.

As I left the restaurant on this particular afternoon, a family of tourists stood somewhat impatiently at the front of the line. The woman leading the group looked back at the line she had seemingly conquered and uttered something about the wait. A Schwartz’s employee opened the door for her, took his own look at the line, and replied.

“If you think this is bad, you should see the hospital.”