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The Customer Comes First

Yermi Marlow

With three branches, tens of thousands of products, and a robust clientele, who would believe that Kay’s Supermarket was once a small, struggling deli? Almost five decades after proprietor Avigdor Langberg took the helm, the iconic London establishment has morphed into a thriving modern supermarket. And yes, it still offers that old-time herring — along with a trademark personal touch

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

first

With a computerized checkout system and multiple checkouts, Kay’s of today is a far cry from the little deli of the past (above left). But customers whose grandmothers bought their favorite candy here still check out at Mrs. Helen Langberg’s cash register (Photos: Mendel Photography)

Kay’s Supermarket and Delicatessen│Golders Green, London│Current Ownership since 1969

Step inside Kay’s Supermarket and Delicatessen on Golders Green Road on a Thursday, and you’re likely to find a curious sight. Three cashiers will be sitting at their cash registers, serving a few customers, while a long line of people snakes toward a single cash register manned by a dignified older woman. Somehow, despite the advances of modern technology, bar codes, and scanners, the long-time customers at Kay’s still seek out the personal touch of proprietor Mrs. Helen Langberg. “The ladies all line up, telling me about their aches and pains,” she says. “They ask me about recipes, how to stop the children crying at night — all sorts of things.” 

Mr. Avigdor Langberg smiles. “The workers are all used to it already,” he says. “They try encouraging the customers to move to the next till (cash register), but most of them say they’ll wait for my wife. She’ll remember to inquire after one customer’s knee replacement or the other’s einekel’s bar mitzvah.” 

Nearly five decades after the Langbergs have taken the helm of the small Kay’s delicatessen, growing it far beyond the original small confines, they’ve managed to retain the personal touch that first gained them a following. 

“We have young grandchildren who come into our shop to buy nosh,” says Helen, “and I can tell them, ‘look, this is the candy your grandmother used to buy when she was your age.’ ” 

Reluctant Sale 

Kay’s delicatessen was first established in the mid-60s, a tiny kosher shop on Golders Green Road. Toward the end of the decade, proprietors Mr. and Mrs. Kay — who lived in the flat (apartment) above — realized they could no longer manage the store, due to their advancing age. They began searching for a buyer. 

Hungarian-born Avigdor Langberg — a fairly recent arrival who’d fled Hungary after the Communist takeover — had a hard time convincing them that he was the man they’d sought. Though he had experience helping out in his immigrant mother’s fruit store, and was ready to prove himself in his own shop, Mr. Kay refused to sell him the store. 

“I want you to succeed,” Mr. Kay told young Avigdor, “but you seem like a religious young man. And since Sunday is the busiest shopping day, you can only manage if you work on Shabbos, setting up the stock for the Sunday customers.” Eager to close the deal, Mr. Langberg offered instead to work on Motzaei Shabbos. Mr. Kay sold him the shop, wondering whether the idealistic immigrant would ever pull through. 

If only Mr. Kay was around today, he’d marvel to see his tiny shop transformed. Kay’s Supermarket and Delicatessen has now knocked through three adjoining shops and built an even larger storage facility at the back. Not only that, the Langbergs have two other branches, one on Hamilton Road — also in Golders Green — and the other in Hampstead Suburb. 

And the family’s grown along with the business. At 76, Avigdor Langberg still makes the 40-minute drive every day from Stamford Hill to the main Golders Green branch tooversee the smooth running of the business, while his daughter Tzirele Gluck runs the office with one of her sons. His oldest son, Eli, deals with the hundreds of wholesalers and his brother Ari deals with the endless logistical considerations that come along with the business. A grandson runs the Hampstead Garden Suburb store.

A late 1980’s photo of Mr. Avigdor Langberg finalizing an order with popular kosher food wholesaler Mr. Refoel Spitzer. Today the Langbergs’ son Ari helps manage the massive logistics of the supermarket chain

Straight from the Barrel 

Back in the early days, Mr. Langberg had just one full-time employee, a few part-timers, and Mr. Kay — who was sure he’d never be able to run the shop without his help. 

His wife Helen also helped out in running the store — sometimes with a baby in her arms — between raising their growing family. 

“In those days customers were personally served each item from behind the counter,” Mr. Langberg remembers. “Pickled cucumber was bought from the barrel and we sliced the cheese and smoked salmon in front of the customer. But today because of health and safety, everything is sealed…. I guess there was no health or safety issues in my time!” 

Helen Langberg, born in London, remembers a different pace of life and demographic, with fixed gender roles and men who hardly visited a grocery store. “When our shop first opened,” she says, “there was a hairdresser’s next door and the ladies came in with rollers in their hair and then returned to finish their hair sets.”

Due to UK religious laws, Mr. Langberg had to place a screen around any alcoholic beverages, because it was forbidden to sell alcohol on a Sunday morning. And that wasn’t the only religious stricture he had to observe: the shop used to close at 2 p.m. on Sunday and at noon on Thursday. Mr. Langberg filed a special application with the local municipality, asking if he could keep longer hours. “Well,” they told him, “if you’re Jewish, you can choose another day to close your shop half a day.” That was an easy decision: he chose Friday afternoons. In the 80s, this law was abolished, and the store now keeps extended hours of 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

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