Could Jewish comfort food be the next big thing in fast food?

Zane Caplansky started smoking meat and serving it on light-rye bread slathered with yellow mustard in the upstairs of a dive bar in 2008.

Zane Caplansky wants the world to taste his bubbie's brisket

An example of a Caplansky's Deli franchise, made with help from Jackman Reinvents, end-to-end retail reinvention consultancy. (Jackman Reinvents)

Zane Caplansky started smoking meat and serving it on light rye bread slathered with yellow mustard in the upstairs of a dive bar in 2008.

Today he is seeking "global deli domination" as his eponymous restaurant is set to go national.

The 46-year-old Toronto-proud Caplansky wants Jewish comfort food to take over from burgers and burritos to become the next fast-casual food craze. 

"I always resisted growth and expansion, except when it came to my waistline," said Caplansky. "I wanted to be like Schwartz's — one great restaurant with people lined up out the door. But my goal now is truly global deli domination."

Caplansky's is now franchising across the country, taking on restaurants like Panera Bread, South St. Burger, Chipotle, Five Guys and others in the fast-growing fast-casual restaurant market, a segment valued at nearly $100-million in Canada. He currently has one restaurant on College Street and two outposts at Pearson International Airport.

He's partnered with Jackman Reinvents, a retail consultancy that also takes a financial stake in all of its engagements, to help him rebrand, expand and retool his restaurant for franchising.

In May, Caplansky will open a modern, 2,200-square foot restaurant that will seat as many as 70 diners in Yorkville, which will act as a model for any franchises.

At the all-new Caplansky's, there will be different kinds of housemade mustards on tap, an all-you-can-eat pickle bar and an evolving list of beers engineered to pair perfectly with smoked meat. The restaurants will also throw back to the glory days of the deli, with neon signs, a pickle-shaped door handle and custom-designed wallpaper adorned with pictures of Caplansky's best-loved menu items, pickles and mustard.

The pickle bar that will appear in new Caplansky's franchises. Also note the yellow taps at the end of the bar to dispense mustard. (Jackman Reinvents)

A Little Italy success story

Caplansky ran his smoked meat deli upstairs at the Monarch Tavern, a historic pub a block south of College Street's Little Italy. The kitchen was big enough for five staff and enough supplies to make a handful of Jewish comfort foods.

He placed a tiny menu card on bar tables that had his personal email.

By the end of year, the deli was so popular it frequently ran out of food before the bar closed.

At the time, the makeshift deli was considered a hidden treasure. Ruth Reichl, the American chef and then-editor of Gourmet Magazine, travelled to Toronto to go to the deli, calling it "awesome."

Soon Caplansky would take the deli out of the bar and into business.

Smoked meat lessons

In 2007, Caplansky learned to make smoked meat sandwiches out of desperation — he was craving one.  But outside of driving to Schwartz's Deli in Montreal, options were scarce.

Starting that day and in the years following, he made so many sandwiches, his name became synonymous with smoked meat. He was present for nearly every sandwich made in his kitchen.

He said in the first 18 months of his College Street restaurant, he was overwhelmed, trying to manage his kitchen, staff and feed customers all at the same time.

Although he admitted he "sucked" early on, he said Toronto wanted him to succeed, and customers kept coming back even though he had yet to master being a restaurateur. 

"I owe a lot to the people of Toronto, who came back after the first and even the second time, even though it wasn't an optimal experience."

But that all changed when he started Thunderin' Thelma, a Caplansky's food truck, in 2011. Being in the truck made it physically impossible to be in his restaurant, and taught him a lesson in management.

"It was the first example of me being able to serve my food without being on site. That was super successful," he said. "Looking back, I feel really badly about the way I behaved and the rough ride I gave other people. It took time, and I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned from them."

Authentic and convenient

Caplansky encourages Instagrams of his food. He promises new restaurants will be Instagram-friendly. (Instagram/Caplanskys)

Caplansky still puts his personal email on every menu. A woman once emailed him to say her sandwich wasn't hot enough at one of his airport locations. He drove out there, ordered a sandwich and after the first bite, he concurred — the sandwich should be hotter.

He wants that personal touch at all his restaurants. Franchising, he said, is the way to do that.

"I don't think I'm all that special," he said. "There are people out there like me who care about customers who care about food. My job in franchising is to find those people."

The goal is to be convenient but still maintain the authenticity Caplansky has created.

Niraj Hansoti, a principal management consultant at partner Jackman Reinvents, said Canadian consumers are increasingly seeking out more authentic food.

"There's a craft behind what Zane's doing," he said.

Hansoti is confident Caplansky's will work as a so-called "fast-casual" restaurant, citing its explosive growth over the past year.

The franchises will cost somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000. The franchise can be anything from a simple sandwich counter to a sit-down restaurant. Caplansky is looking specifically at opening up in Vancouver and Calgary — and other Canadian cities of more than 150,000 people.

But first, Caplansky said he needs to find people "passionate about delis" who will, like him, invest in quality.

"I don't need to be the biggest, I only need to be the best," he said. "The best latkes, the best knishes, the best smoked meat. That philosophy is what started me in the Monarch Tavern and that's what will continue."


Joshua Errett

Senior Producer, Features

Joshua Errett has been a reporter, editor and digital manager in Toronto since the early 2000s. He has been described as "a tornado of innovation, diligence and authenticity." Got a story idea?


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?