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The Chosen Ones: An Interview with Matt Pomerantz

New York’s bagel king on going from global equity derivative operations to everything with schmear, running a family business, and Debbie Harry’s bialys

Periel Aschenbrand
July 20, 2017
Photo courtesy of Matt Pomerantz
Photo courtesy of Matt Pomerantz
Photo courtesy of Matt Pomerantz
Photo courtesy of Matt Pomerantz

If you know anything about New York bagels, then you know who Matt Pomerantz is, even if you didn’t know his name until now. Bored by Wall Street, he opened the original Murray’s in 1994 with his brother, as an homage and act of love to their father, who became both a fixture and a quasi-celebrity in the city. In the twenty plus years since, and with the desire to expand, he opened Zucker’s, named for his mother, Roslyn Marilyn Zucker Pomerantz.

With five locations and more to follow, it’s safe to say he is killing it.

I sat down with him in his newest (gorgeous) location on the Upper West Side to hear how his garmento family went from brassieres to bagels.

Periel Aschenbrand: Best bagels in town. Go!

Matt Pomerantz: I started Murray’s in Greenwich Village with my brother, it was named after my father, who was born on the Lower East Side and had a ladies clothing store forever on Rivington and Orchard, which is now, ironically, what’s the name of that sex shop?

PA: Babes in Toyland.

MP: That’s right. His old-school schmata store is Babes in Toyland. It’s crazy.

PA: Is he still with us?

MP: No, he died a few years ago.

PA: Did he know about the sex toy shop?

MP: He did.

PA: Was he amused by it?

MP: Yeah. He was amazed by how the area changed. It was an iconic store, it was called Berrington Smith and it had been opened for 40 years.

PA: Did you grow up on the Lower East Side?

MP: No, but I worked there on Sundays and during the summers. I was born in Brooklyn but I grew up in Staten Island.

PA: Aren’t there like seventeen Jews in all of Staten Island?

MP: Jewish, Irish and Italian. It was a good experience. Good way to grow up. And I experienced the Lower East Side my whole life.

PA: I still feel like a Staten Island Jew is a little bit rare.

MP: It’s different. My dad grew up Orthodox in the Red Hook projects but back then it was Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants. He was Orthodox
because his parents came from Europe and that was the lifestyle. You came, you went to temple, you went to Minyan every morning, every home was kosher back then, his parents only spoke Yiddish. But he was never personally really religious. So he went right out of high school to work at a clothing store that he wound up owning. In Staten Island, there were only a few synagogues, so you wound up knowing everybody. You either went to one temple or…

PA: . . .the other. Like it is everywhere.

MP: Right. So all the Jews on Staten knew each other. And they all went to camp. So they still did the Jewish thing. Even though I went to Tottenville High School, where it’s all about sports and. . .

PA: . . .the mob.

MP: Yeah. And my friends were very mixed—Irish and Italian. I think it’s a good way to grow up. I think it makes you a better Jew.

PA: I agree. Okay, so you started Murray’s. . .

MP: First I worked on Wall Street for about seventeen years. It was one of those things that I would never do to my own kids, but I was the first generation to go to college. I became an accountant. I hated it, but then, it was like, you’re good at math and you’re also a good artist but nobody from Staten Island becomes an artist. I started at Deloitte and I loved the camaraderie and the people, it was a good time. Great people. But I hated accounting. So I left and eventually went to Merrill Lynch for fourteen years in a variety of roles. Global equity derivative operations, that was my last job in 1999. But I started Murray’s in 1995 with my brother who was also at Merrill Lynch as a mortgage banker. We rented this really small tiny store on 6th Avenue.

PA: And everyone was like, are you guys insane?

MP: My mother-in-law called me an idiot.

PA: Why bagels?

MP: My dad had gone bankrupt. He was a really good man. He was in his late fifties, not much older than me now. He lost the two buildings he owned. There was a time when the area got very depressed. The Lower East Side didn’t just become a hip neighborhood overnight; that took ten, fifteen years. But he couldn’t make the transition. Eventually, he almost gave the building away. When he went bankrupt, I had just graduated from college so there wasn’t much I could do and my brother was still in high school. So all we knew was that our dad was driving a van. It went on for a long time. He was working for a guy he used to buy from. Schlepping fabric, doing errands, lifting, this was my dad who used to drive a Cadillac. He was a big guy. He was about 300 pounds. He claimed he was 5’11’’ but by the time he died, I think he was about 5’7”. And he was tough. A real street guy. Everybody loved him. And he loved to talk and he loved to tell stories. He was a real menschy, good guy, but cool. Everybody was crazy about him. So me and my brother started thinking, what are we going to do? We have to do something where we can bring Daddy into it. Maybe we’ll buy a little franchise, like Mailboxes Etc.

PA: I love this story.

MP: And now we’re in our late twenties, early thirties, doing nicely. Both of us were living in The Archive in the West Village. And my brother was like, “Daddy is not the guy to be collating pamphlets, all the pages will be out of order, the covers will be on backwards, that’s not what he does.” And one day he goes, “This is what I wanna do—let’s open up a bagel shop. Let me start it up and let’s see how it goes.” And it started to happen. And everything fell into place. The truth is that we were the first ones out there to say, ‘Great hand rolled bagels, great smoked fish and a great cup of coffee in a cool little space.’

PA: It works.

MP: That was always our business model.

PA: But there’s another thing that’s very unique about you guys, which is the design.

MP: We’re lucky because my brother’s wife is an architect, so she was always in the background when we were business partners. And I’ve always been creative so the collaboration always resulted in a good concept. We’re very conscious of not doing something tacky or dated. So my brother left Merrill Lynch and said I’m just going to do this and my dad came to work. And we named it Murray’s.

PA: He must have loved that.

MP: He was really excited. And I continued to work two jobs for five years. And it became a big hit.

PA: Immediately?

MP: Yeah, but what it looks like from the outside isn’t what was necessarily going on.

PA: Right, of course.

MP: And we were always very conscious that we were catering to New York. It’s Jewish-style food, but we’re catering to everyone. And if you think about it, we grew up that way.

PA: That’s really nice, though. You’re keeping it New York, but in a real way.

MP: After five years, we opened up Chelsea and that was huge hit, on 8th between 22nd and 23rd. We always said that our stores are about connecting with the community and the neighborhood. So that’s what happened. And our dad became a fixture. We owned it but everyone thought it was his store. So if either of us did something wrong, people would say, “you know your father wouldn’t appreciate that.” My dad became sort of like a small celebrity in the neighborhood.

PA: Like he used to be back when he had the clothing store?

MP: Even bigger. He was the bagel guy. He was selling dresses back then, so he never related to that. All of sudden the 300-pound Murray related to what he was doing. He was sitting down in the village and he was going back and forth from both stores until the day he died. It was unbelievable. He died of cancer and, even when he was getting treated, we would have a car take him from Sloan Kettering to the stores.

PA: You must have incredible stories.

MP: I remember walking into the Chelsea store once and there was this blonde woman with shades on who walked into the back of the store and she was like, “Murray, can you get me my package and throw in the bialys?” And he was like, “Sure. Thanks a lot, Debbie, I’ll see you next week.” I was like, “Dad, do you know who that is?” And he was like, “Yeah, that’s Debbie.” And I was like, “That’s Debbie Harry, Dad!” And he goes, “Oh, yeah? That’s somebody big?” He had no idea. He would say things like, “I just had lunch with Richard Dreyfus. Nice guy, he’s having some trouble with his girlfriend. He likes the whitefish.”

PA: Oh my god.

MP: Those were great times. And then my brother and I decided we wanted different things. So I opened up Zucker’s in Tribeca.

PA: My son goes to school around there. They fucked up my order but I was impressed with your packaging. Anyway. So you opened up Zucker’s.

MP: Yes. I wanted to grow the business. Zucker is my mom’s maiden name.

PA: Did you grow up really Jewish?

MP: We did all the holidays and had a lot of Jewish friends and you know, went to camp. Which became a joke amongst my friends, I’d go to a club in New York with a bunch of Italian guys and they’d be like, “Hey Matt, you know him from camp?”

PA: Haha. That’s so true. Speaking of Italians, I have a few food, drink and fashion related questions. What’s your favorite drink?

MP: Lately, I like club soda and a little bit of lemonade.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

MP: My wife makes lox, eggs and onions like three days a week. She has perfected it. But I also like a very simple fried egg over easy.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

MP: I usually drink our coffee, which is La Colombe, with a little milk and sometimes a little bit of hazelnut syrup because I’m a sweet freak. We
have a really good blend.

PA: I know you do. What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?

MP: Passover and Hanukah.

PA: Did you have a Bar Mitzvah?

MP: Yes.

PA: What did you wear?

MP: A brown western style tuxedo with a western yoke in the back.

PA: WOW. That’s incredible. What shampoo do you use?

MP: Devachan, because that’s what my wife uses. I don’t really care that much.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

MP: Probably lox. My kids eat lox like it’s lunch meat. Not only do they eat lox, they eat David Burke’s pastrami salmon, which is like sixty dollars a pound.

PA: They sound pretty smart. Five things in your bag right now?

MP: My phone, computer, my wallet, my metro card and my watch.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

MP: I like Vans. And I usually wear black Stan Smiths. And I have a pair of Palladiums that I love.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.

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