Murray Klein: New York food retailer

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The Independent Online

Mordecai Klein (Murray Klein), retailer: born 1923; married 1953 Edith Bronner (one son, one daughter); died New York 6 December 2007.

Murray Klein was the public face of Zabar's, the world-renowned Jewish deli on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He was a partner with the various members of the Zabar family, several of whom have gone on to develop high-end food retail and catering businesses, but it was Klein who, before his retirement in 1994, made the store's policies about merchandising, pricing and publicity.

In the early days Klein worked on the ground floor, in a white butcher's coat, trading banter and counsel about smoked fish with Zero Mostel and Itzhak Perlman, and later ladled out borscht to Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand, while cutting up chunks of European cheeses for discerning New York shoppers.

Zabar's was a sort of foodie paradise, except on Sunday mornings, when it was invariably packed with customers, making the area in front of the smoked fish counter one of the most crowded spaces on earth. But the variety and quality of the smoked fish was and remains amazing: many sorts of salmon, from ordinary, sometimes coarse-grained lox to the silkiest Nova Scotia or the best wild Scottish salmon; paprika-sprinkled black cod; smoked whitefish, mackerel and bluefish. Tins of caviar, tubs of chopped liver, steaming pastramis and salt beef, bright red Kosher frankfurters and strings of fat knackwurst, with salamis of every description hanging behind the counters.

Klein realised that food retailing was as much about espresso makers as pickled herrings, and hanging from the ceiling of the store were housewares of all descriptions. "I do a million dollars a year off the ceiling," he boasted. From the mid 1970s Zabar's was attracting a national following, and international fame.

He was a genius at generating publicity (though the celebrity of his customers made it fairly easy) and equally at keeping his prices keen. He would, for example, treat Italian white truffles as a loss leader, knowing that no customer buying them would walk out without also buying a considerable quantity of lox and bagels. In 1983 he began a price war with Macy's, undercutting the giant department store on Lindt chocolate and Beluga caviar. In 1975 when the Cuisinart food processor (called Magimix in Britain) was introduced, Klein sold the machine for 30 per cent less than every other retailer. The French company refused to fulfil his orders until Klein took them to court.

Born Mordecai Klein in 1923, in a Jewish community in the Soviet Union near the border with Romania, he was separated from his family at the start of the Second World War, and later sent to a labour camp; his parents and siblings all died in concentration camps. After escaping he joined the Jewish guerrilla movement, the Irgun, smuggling arms to Palestine. He was captured in Italy, and became a political prisoner. Klein ended the war in a displaced-persons camp in the unused movie studios at Cinecitta in Rome. In 1950 he emigrated to New York, changing his first name to Murray.

The Zabar brothers' father, Louis, who owned six Zabar's grocery stores on the Upper West Side, hired Klein as a stockman in 1953. He left the family's employ several times, until they brought him back as a partner in 1960, when their Upper West Side empire had been reduced to a single store, at 80th Street and Broadway. His relations with the Zabar brothers were at times turbulent, but everyone recognised Klein's large and colourful contribution to the business over 30 years.

Paul Levy