Categories: North America, Q&A

Q&A: Sy Ginsberg, corned beef king of Detroit

Corned beef sandwich from Russell Street in Detroit.

“Detroit, being the great melting pot that it is, will continue to shine in its diverse food offerings.” –Sy Ginsberg, co-owner, United Meat & Deli

Tell us about your job.
I oversee the processing of our products at United Meat & Deli; I handle the development of new products; I’m in charge of procuring raw materials and ingredients; and I handle much of our national sales.

Another one of my jobs is “deli consultant.” This is my favorite: Since I’ve been involved in the Jewish-style deli business for more than 50 years, I offer assistance to future [deli owners], helping them set up their deli, plan the menu, train, and generally get it off the ground. I do not charge for my time—I love doing this, and it usually helps to establish long-term friendships and business relationships.

What led you to your current position?
I started working at age 15 in a neighborhood deli in Detroit. At age 23, instead of finishing school, I became an entrepreneur, owning my own little deli. After a few years, I wanted something bigger and better, so I built a new deli with 150 seats: The Pickle Barrel Deli, in Southfield, Michigan. We did very well there, but it burned me out. I sold my interest five years later and got involved in the wholesale and distribution side of the business. This evolved into the creation of my own brand of products, which I still process and sell all around the country.

We loved the sandwich [pictured above], made with Sy Ginsberg corned beef, that we had at Russell Street Deli. How would you say your product (corned beef in particular) fits into the culinary landscape of Detroit?
Corned beef is, of course, very popular in the Jewish-style delis, and has been for as long as I can remember.  Now it’s become a very popular item in the inner city. Corned beef is a favorite food of the African-American trade in Detroit and Cleveland. Almost every diner, tavern, or family-style restaurant in the nation will have a Reuben sandwich on the menu.

How does Detroit’s corned beef compare to New York’s?
I think the Midwest flavor profile is far superior. While New York-style pastrami is great (we also produce this), I feel its corned beef is mostly very bland.

Them’s fighting words! Name one iconic food in Detroit that a visitor cannot miss.
A sandwich of corned beef, coleslaw, and Russian dressing on double-baked rye tops my list, followed closely by the Detroit-version Coney dog with our Detroit-style chili, yellow mustard, and chopped onion. And you can’t leave out Faygo Red Pop and Vernor’s ginger ale.

Eat Your World focuses a lot on a city’s historic and traditional foods. What do you think is the future of food/drink in Detroit?
It’s hard to talk about the future of food, since people are so transient. Mobility is a great thing. With metro Detroit’s burgeoning Middle Eastern population, I’ve become a huge fan of Arabic food. The same thing happened 15 or 20 years ago, when I was introduced to Greek food here. Fifty years ago you had to drive around to find a pizzeria; now there are two or three at every intersection—especially since Little Caesars and Dominos were founded in the Detroit area. Detroit, being the great melting pot that it is, will continue to shine in its diverse food offerings.

On EYW, we ask users to share short food memories related to travel, a favorite meal, growing up—anything. Can you share a brief food memory with our readers?
I feel especially fortunate that I’ve been able to travel and experience so many different cultures, and their food. I love going to the appetizing shops in New York: Zabar’s, Dean & DeLuca, and Russ & Daughters are great places. Places like Yonah Schimmel’s knish factory and the sidewalk pickle vendors are so fascinating. Farmers markets are great.  The seafood markets in Seattle are fun. Visiting market places in Italy or Russia or Turkey or anyplace else, where people go shopping daily and bargain with the vendors for their dinner ingredients, is so cool to experience. Our world is so diverse and it is wonderful to be able to experience its diversity.

Published On: October 5, 2011

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