Two short years ago, David Kawash never imagined he’d be slinging his own seafood salad or holding wing-eating contests to promote his business.
In fact, Vito’s not the only Soprano who’s graced the Deli with his presence since Kawash and his wife Justine took it over in early May.
While Kawash said the sharp turn from a cushy Wall Street job to working around the clock as a small business owner is not something he would have attempted if it weren’t for the rough economy, he’s enjoying it all the same.
“The money was very good,” Kawash said of his former job at RRC, before running off a list of the benefits he was afforded there. “And sitting behind the desk in a very nice office was terrific. Believe me. But when you control your own ship and you can build something and see it succeed, there ain’t nothing like it. “
Kawash was laid off along with his entire RRC group in early 2009, when the bottom fell out of the financial markets.
Despite having worked as a corporate financial analyst for more than a decade, finding employment wasn’t easy. With so many others in his field out of work under similar circumstances, competition for jobs was fierce and Kawash remained unemployed for two long years.
“You do some soul searching,” he said of his time out of the work force. “Do I want to take a job for much less money and a much lesser position than what I had had, and run the risk of being let go again? Or do I want to go out and try to figure out how maybe I can steer my own ship? “
After settling on the latter option, Kawash started looking for small businesses that he thought would be a good fit for him, beginning with what he knew best: the hair salon industry.
Growing up and for a few years after high school, Kawash worked for his father, the owner of 11 North Jersey salons, including one in Fair Lawn called, “Michele Arnold Et Edouard.”
But when he began researching the potential profitability of area salons, his background as an analyst actually got in the way.
“I’m able to look at a business and dissect it and really understand the numbers more than someone else who doesn’t have that background,” he said. “It was an advantage for me, but also a disadvantage because I almost knew too much.”
Unable to find the right fit financially, his salon dream fizzled and Kawash said he thought to himself, “Okay, what else?”
The answer was food – something he’d always been passionate about and really had booked up on during his time out of work.
“For those two years, I probably cooked five days a week, every night, gourmet,” he said. “The Food Network, Bobby Flay, Giada, Barefoot Contessa, all those folks -- we became very good friends over the two years I was unemployed.”
He recalled how a visit to an upscale Italian deli in Spring Lake made him off-handedly remark to his sister how much he’d love to own something similar.
And then one day, he had the chance to do just that.
Kawash spotted an ad for the Radburn Deli on Craigslist's small businesses for sale section and decided to check it out.
He said when made a lunch trip there from Waldwick with his family, he was really taken by the location.
“I thought, this is a class act here, and right in the center of Fair Lawn,” he said. “I’m right across from the Radburn train station. This might have potential.”
So he told the owners he was interested, but not quite ready to make an offer. He first needed to do some observation.
“[The owners] were very good with allowing me to come in and watch the traffic coming in and out, watch the way they did business and review the daily receipts,” he said. “So I did that and I put together what I did before as a financial analyst, an economic forecast.”
After Kawash ran the numbers, he was convinced that with some strategic improvements like renovating the deli’s interior, revamping its menu and launching new marketing efforts, he could succeed. He bought the Radburn Deli along with the recipes for some of its most popular items, including the buffalo wings, potato salad and home fries.
Cleaning up the deli to make it more welcoming became Kawash’s first order of business. To achieve the intended effect, he rearranged the interior -- which had been set up like a grocery store – adding new tables, menu boards, salad cases, a flat screen TV, ceiling fans, and pendant and fluorescent lighting.
“The change, if you were ever here before, nuts,” he said. “Like night and day. After I redid all these things, people would walk in, look around and walk out because they didn’t think they were in the right place.”
Next, Kawash wanted to add convenience for customers and make all patrons feel welcome.
To achieve that end, he now provides a quick grab-and-go option by offering regular hot menu items in the deli’s steam table and selling fresh mozzarella, seafood salad, meatballs and chicken cutlets by the pound. Recently added self-serve soup and coffee bars give customers even more selection and the deli’s expanded hours – it’s now open until 7 p.m. on weeknights – capture traffic coming off the train after work.
As a way of serving his nonambulatory neighbors, Kawash delivers purchases to senior citizens and people with disabilities for free, without a minimum.
“If they need a stick of butter, if they need a half-gallon of milk, if they need a head of lettuce, a loaf of bread, we’re happy to bring it over to them,” Kawash said. “Why not? It’s nothing for me to go two blocks and bring a gallon of milk to someone. It’s nothing.”
Kawash said he’s also tried to improve the deli’s food quality. He now sells frozen products from Vitamia & Sons in Lodi, and gets his meat from Thumann’s in Carlstadt, NJ.
Recipes that weren’t purchased from the previous owners all come from his family. The foundation of many deli offerings, its red sauce, is a recipe that was passed down to Kawash’s wife, Justine, from her Italian grandmother.
Kawash said his favorite concoction so far has been a spin on the deli’s already-famous wings, which he said have never been so popular.
“I made this honey soy recipe,” he explained, palpable excitement tinging his voice. “It’s soy sauce, hibiscus honey, I put a little garlic, a little ginger, and a little bit of sesame oil and one other thing that I can’t tell you or I’d have to kill you.” He chuckles.
The honey soy wings have sold so well, Kawash said, that he’s added a parenthetical aside after their listing on the menu that reads, “It’s addicting.”
To get the word out about the New Radburn Gourmet Deli, Kawash’s re-branded name for his business, the NYU marketing grad sends out a fax blast each morning with daily specials, a word scrambler, trivia and prizes to more than 200 local businesses. He’s also launched a new catering menu, held multiple celebrity promotional events and set up a booth at recent Fair Lawn street fairs.
“We’re trending up,” Kawash said, scrolling through the comprehensive spreadsheet on his laptop where he keeps his budget. “People are coming in all the time. The numbers are up.”
Making the deli hum with business has taken a lot of work. Kawash said that while he’s spending twice as much time working each week as he had as a financial analyst, running the deli gives him a certain spark that he hadn’t felt in a long time.
“Working 100 hours a week, to me, is nothing, because I love it,” he said. “You know the old cliché, if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life? It’s freaking true.
“The satisfaction of having something and building something that’s mine and seeing the results and being able to measure the success, it makes me giddy inside,” he continued. “There’s a warm and fuzzy that comes with that, that you’ll never have working for someone or getting up, punching the clock and working a 9 to 5, and not controlling your destiny that way.”
Kawash calls his personal reinvention a salvation and said he considers self-employment a model for breaking through the paralysis and depression that comes with long-term unemployment.
“I may not be making as much money. Yet.” he added, “ but I’m coming to work with a smile on my face every day. I'm happier.”
The New Radburn Gourmet Deli held its grand opening ceremony Saturday, Oct. 1