A day in the life of a Jewish deli right before Passover

Passover starts Friday night, and while many people are just starting to set up for their Seders, Jewish delis have been hustling all week.

Listen 2:23

With boxes of kugel in each hand, Shaina Robbins zips past a pot full of simmering matzo balls to divvy out the goods into Seder packages spread all along the deli counters and floors.

“I’ve been here for six years, and Passover has never gotten easier for me,” said Robbins, the assistant manager at Schlesinger’s deli in Philadelphia. “I even told my mom and sister — they text me all day, every day — I texted them this morning when they texted me at 7 a.m., and I said, ‘Don’t be alarmed. I probably will not be answering texts for the next 48 hours.’ ”

Robbins scoops chopped liver on the fly, eyeing the clock and bracing for the lunchtime rush — the 70-seat deli is about to be stuffed, and she’s got 250 dinners to make. It’s the busiest time of the year for the deli at 15th and Locust, and she said it’s always “complete madness.”

“So we made 500 matzo balls and about 300 quarts of soup,” says general manager Russell Farer, who’s like Schlesinger’s “Iron Chef.” He’s been doing the Passover hustle for about 55 years, 10 of them at Schlesinger’s.  

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By noon, Farer and Robbins have been prepping and packaging for seven hours. As he fills a couple dozen containers with soup, she dashes back to the kitchen to grab an armful of matzo balls. On her way, she pauses to spoon the charoset, a chopped apple and nut dish, into a to-go container for an à la carte pickup. They’ve still got 50 left for the day.  

“I love when I get to the orders that say one dinner because it will take me like two seconds, and then I get to one that says 33 dinners — and I panic,” said Robbins.

The giant dinner bags are filled to the the brim with food. One deli cook sighed as he went to pick up a bag and the handle instantly snapped like a toothpick.

The crew is careful to make sure each dinner bag has the right contents. With so many pounds of food to send off, the last thing they want is for a side to go missing.

“You don’t want to forget a side of horseradish for the gefilte fish, or we’re going to get a call about it,” Robbins said, shaking her head.

To lessen the chaos, she and Farer have designed a strict labeling system. All the dinner orders are lettered, and all the à la cartes are numbered.

“It’s scary knowing we’re on letter ‘C’ — and we still have the whole alphabet to do,” Farer said. “Nobody is leaving here today until all the orders are out, which will probably be 8 p.m. or 10 p.m. This is my week to work like 90 hours.”

Despite the grueling hours, they always get the job done.

“I tell him every year, I don’t know where all of this food all of a sudden comes from. It’s like the day before, and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I made this, I made this, I made this,’ and I’m like when did you do this?” Robbins says. “I thought we were together working all day, and then somehow all this food gets made.”

“I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s like second nature to me,” Farer replies. “Other people say, ‘Oh, you’ve got so many dinners, how are you going to get it done?’

“We’ll get it done.”

The audio postcard features the song “Matzo Balls” by Slim Gaillard.

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