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Bringing The Suburban Deli Sandwich Back To The City

Richard Zaro hails from the Zaro’s Family Bakery clan, legendary since 1927 in the New York area for their baked goods and shops in Grand Central and Penn Station among others. Zaro recently struck out on his own to launch Cutlets, an updated reimagining of suburban delis, with a retail location in Manhattan and a new delivery/takeout spot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Growing up, I was always involved in the family business. Throughout high school, I would work in the stores or the factory. So it was always a part of my life. But as I began to get more serious about the business and decided to make that my career, it became much more intense. I wasn’t going there just to work. Even working there over the summers during middle school or high school, it was so exciting for me. I always knew it was in my blood.

Being part of the Zaro family in that business, you do a little bit of everything. I was there with three older cousins. In the first five years there, I helped manage retail operations. I worked every day in Penn Station and Grand Central managing those teams. We always felt that it was important to have somebody from the family behind the lines working with everybody. I spent five years grinding there. In the last three years, I took over our downtown commissary and the catering we run out of there.

But I always had the entrepreneurial bug. I also spent two of those last three years getting my MBA after work. I took over catering because I wanted my own piece of the business to grow and mold. In retail, working with my cousins, my father, and my uncle, it wasn’t my own business. In the end, I worked full-time at Zaro’s for seven years, and I left right before the pandemic.

For the Cutlets concept I’m doing now, I’m trying to make the delis that I grew up with relevant for the way that people like to eat now. We used to love going and getting the chicken cutlet sandwiches and egg sandwiches. On Saturday mornings, my brothers and my friends would visit these places. When I go and eat that now, I’m like, “What is this chicken?” I wanted to build something that brought me back to the nostalgic sandwiches that I loved, but that I feel good about eating.

I like to call it the tri-state suburban deli, because it’s not necessarily in the city as much. It’s the kind of deli you find in the suburbs of Westchester, Long Island, and northern New Jersey. But it’s also regional in a sense, because really it’s a hint of that Italian influence. You see that in some places in Boston and Philly too.

Nationally, there’s a void of these particular sandwiches. Unless you’re talking about McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts, the bacon, egg, and cheese is so foreign to most places. I went to school in Indiana. I spent a lot of time in Chicago. I lived in Colorado for a couple of years. As a businessman, I saw a huge market and opportunity, and this food is what I always longed for when I lived in those places.

General Tso’s chicken cutlet sandwich from Cutlets. Photo: Brandon Castillo.

There’s a huge opportunity in the sandwich market that hasn’t really innovated. The big names are still your Jersey Mike’s, Potbelly, Subway, Quizno’s, Penn Station Subs, whatever. There’s Jimmy Johns and all those places. They’re all buying the same Schuman’s or Boar’s Head or whatever processed deli meats that people have been eating for the last 70 years. Eating clean and healthy and knowing where your stuff is from is something I’m personally passionate about.

We make our turkey in-house. We get our turkey breast from Plainville Farms, which is the same turkey that you’re going to buy from Whole Foods. It’s a really high-quality breast. We’re spending the extra money and taking the extra time to, one, get a quality product, and two, make it in-house in a way that still brings you back to that Boar’s Head-y sandwich. We brine our turkey for two days, and we always have three or four on hand. We’re serving that fresh every single day. We still slice it really thin.

We don’t want to expand our menu too much. We want to be simple in the same way that you see at Sweetgreen or Dig Inn. Those places are simple with their menus. We want to come in that same QSR format. This Is something that we really want to grow and expand.

When the pandemic happened, I was actually looking at a retail store lease, and I said, “I’m not signing anything.” I paused everything. I saw an opportunity to reach the same audience and get brand exposure by opening up as a delivery-only kitchen. We opened up in the middle of July, right in the thick of it. We saw a lot of success, enough to be able to move into a retail store. Now we’re operating here, and it’s been really exciting. I’ve been in the store every day since we opened. I genuinely love it.

We’re lucky that most of our business is delivery. We do have indoor seating, but I don’t think that’s a driver for our business. It’ll create a good atmosphere, and people will walk by and say, “I want to go sit in there. It looks nice.” We’ve been taking the utmost protocols in terms of everyone’s health. We take everyone’s temperature every day. Masks are mandatory. We make sure we keep as far away from each other as possible.

At Zaro’s, there were seven people involved. Every decision was labored over, and we weren’t really a quick-moving company. Obviously I don’t have that burden here. I can wake up tomorrow and get something done. It’s been really nice and exciting for me. Family businesses—there’s a reason why they teach them in business school. None of them are easy.

We’re trying to be aggressive because there’s a lot of second-generation retail space available. We want to find spaces that make sense and lock in the deals now, while things are tenant-friendly. I always will invest in New York. But we don’t want to do what some of these other brands have done and open 10 locations in New York City. We want to open two or three really solid Manhattan locations, get into Williamsburg and Long Island City. From there we want to get into other major markets and college towns. There’s such a huge opportunity outside of New York, because they don’t even know what a chicken cutlet is. When they do, they’re going to love it.