Rickie Rothman pushes a grocery cart full of comfort foods — egg salad, potato and kasha knishes, matzo balls, cucumber salad, smoked turkey breast, blueberry blintzes and chopped liver — down the aisle at Omnitsky Kosher on Cambie Street near West 41st Avenue.
Rothman is on her way home from a visit to Whistler on this sunny October afternoon. She’s been a regular customer since the business opened almost two decades ago.
“Everything is fresh here. [It’s] kosher, but I come here because of the service and the food,” she says. “You should see this place on the weekend — sometimes it’s packed.”
Business is steady today. Plain White T’s “Hey there Delilah” plays softly on a radio perched behind the deli counter as a customer orders egg salad to go.
Another shopper orders a hotdog and matzo ball soup from a menu that has options ranging from a Noah’s Ark “Epwich” (chopped liver/pastrami/coleslaw) to salad plates.
The customer eats at a table near a large window facing Cambie Street and Oakridge Centre.
Owner Efrem “Eppy” Rappaport juggles duties, including ringing in purchases.
“Pickles, corned beef, two rye and hockey back on — what more could you ask for?” he tells a pair of shoppers while bagging their groceries.
Customer interaction is why he fell in love with the business.
“You build relationships, especially with weekly clientele. You get to know them. I would consider them friends even. You feel their pain when they go through pain in life. You feel their joy when they go through joy in life. I’ve developed many, many good relationships from loyal, repeat customers.”
Leona Pinsky was one of the first customers through Rappaport’s door when the deli opened. She’d been to Omnitsky Kosher in Winnipeg, where the business originated, and heard through word of mouth it was opening on Cambie Street.
“At that time there was only one other place to buy kosher meat in Vancouver, so it was a big deal when someone new was opening up,” she says.
Pinsky now shops weekly. “You can’t beat the quality of his kosher meat. I have people come from out of town and say, ‘This is the best meat I’ve had in Vancouver — where did you get it?’”
Pinsky also appreciates Rappaport’s community contributions. “He’s very generous. He just quietly supports so many different things in the Jewish community and outside of the Jewish community,” she says.
Rappaport describes himself as a Conservative Jew — he wears the skullcap worn by observant Jews and keeps a kosher home. He spent his youth in Winnipeg where his father was a rabbi. A photo of the now 56-year-old at age 13 in a pin-striped suit at his bar mitzvah hangs on a wall. An American accent hints at his New York birthplace, but he lived in Winnipeg from age 10 to 36 and it’s where his business career started.
Louis Omnitsky opened the original Omnitsky Kosher in Winnipeg in 1910. Omnitsky’s son William took it over. At retirement age, he approached Rappaport’s father to see whether he knew anyone who’d like to buy the shop.
Rappaport was studying at the University of Manitoba, but had taken a year off. He didn’t have money to buy a business. Omnitsky offered to train him and recoup the cost once he was making money.
“I did fall in love with the business and four-and-a-half-years later he sold me the business. He took back the purchase price exactly the way he promised. So when I decided to move out here, I carried its name, even though it’s a mouthful. Out of respect for the man, I wanted his name brought out here.”
The Jewish community is Omnitsky’s prime demographic, but Rappaport estimates 25 per cent of business comes from non-Jewish clientele who prefer kosher foods or buy them for their own religious or personal reasons.
To earn kosher status, proper rules and regulations, dating back to the Old Testament, must be followed in the purchasing, production, and preparation of the food. A person on staff ensures such conditions are met and a supervisory third party from B.C. Kosher also inspects two or three times a day.
The deli’s grocery line is almost exclusively stock that’s difficult to get elsewhere, including non-dairy “parve” chocolate chippits and rennet-free cheeses. Rappaport also sells bread products, frozen and dried foods — all certified kosher.
Rappaport works between 60 and 90 hours a week, partly at his office and plant on Annacis Island. Over the years he’s weathered the unpredictable marketplace and more recently disruption caused by Canada Line construction. His former landlord gave tenants a break on rent during that period and Rappaport adapted by rebranding packaging, selling hotdogs and salamis under the name Eppy’s Kosher in other stores, and buying a refrigerated truck for deliveries.
He may have to adapt again as his building has a new owner and city hall is considering a massive redevelopment proposal for Oakridge Centre across the street. But Rappaport is prepared for what lies ahead.
“There’s no small business in the world that doesn’t evolve and change. Everything always changes,” he says.