By Georgina Parker

A pandemic turned normal life upside down, so the Zeldens put trust in the unknown and found new success

Incoming delivery orders prompt an electronic jingle as they register on the tablet behind the front counter, while drivers rush inside to collect the food they are en route to drop off. The constantly ringing phone and the hustling staff calling back and forth between the kitchen and front counter muffles the ’80s music that’s playing. The meat slicer clunking back and forth adds a rhythm to the organized chaos in this mid-town deli.

The constant waves of business, even on a rainy March weekend, make it seem almost unbelievable that a global pandemic is taking place, but the Zeldens aren’t complaining.

Shelley and Irene Zelden, the husband and wife who own and operate Zelden’s Deli and Desserts, have been together for nearly 40 years and married for 35. The couple met working at a diner that Shelley’s family owned in Pickering and it was Shelley’s mother who taught Irene the traditional Jewish recipes that either inspired or remain as the recipes for the Zelden’s Deli menu. 

The kosher-style restaurant that brands itself as “The Evolution of Deli” has been open for nearly three and a half years and is just south of the intersection of Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue.

The deli is decorated with black, red, and white furniture and décor and the ceiling is outfitted with patterned silver tiles. At the front of the restaurant is a wall of imported candies with treats from places like Britain, fridges full of homemade mustards and barbeque sauces as well as specialty beverages like Original New York Seltzers, and the front counter shows off an array of baked goods like muffins and cookies inside a glass case.

Irene says the deli hasn’t been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Zelden’s is one independent business that has been able to find new ways to connect with customers even though dining inside has been prohibited in Toronto for several months since a second wave of lockdowns was imposed.

The deli was not registered on any food delivery services before the pandemic. 

“Probably the day that they did the shutdown we signed up for all of them,” Irene says. “I’m so grateful that we did. A lot of people have found us through them.” 

In addition to the introduction of delivery, the Zeldens have also started getting more involved with social media and understanding the benefits of reaching out to customers in new ways.

Even when the deli is flooded with orders, at the busiest times during the day, Irene still works to greet everyone who walks through the door. Numerous people who come up to the counter know the owners by name.

Irene and Shelley work in the deli nearly every day to keep the business running smoothly, on Thursday, April 29th, 2021. (Georgina Parker/T•)

“Hi Irene,” one driver calls back to the kitchen. He waves to Irene through the serving window behind the counter and she takes a moment away from putting together an order to wave back and ask how the man is doing. 

Those warm welcomes are not uncommon at Zelden’s according to online reviews. Andrea Mavárez Medina, on Google reviews says, “They make you feel like a regular even if you are not.”

Working nearly every day to make sure everything gets done and gets done well, Irene has a seemingly effortless system. She calls back to the staff working in the kitchen, when she’s not there herself, to make sure orders are on time and correct. She takes care of the front of house, making sure all of the food is properly prepared and picked up. 

Irene Zelden talks about some of the many things that she makes from scratch for the deli and lists some of the house specials of Zelden’s Deli and Desserts. (Georgina Parker/T•)

In addition to their traditional deli foods, such as pastrami and Rueben sandwiches, matza ball soup, beef knishes, and latkes, Zelden’s has also become known in the neighbourhood for their brunch. Using sliced deli meat instead of bacon or creating nests from fried shredded potatoes and filling them with eggs and meat are some of the plays on traditional brunch that they offer. 

The meat slicer matches the rest of the red, black, and white deli and is in use frequently during the day, on Thursday, April 29th, 2021. (Georgina Parker/T•)

Matthew Cantelon wrote on Google reviews, “Whenever I have guests from out of town, or just want to treat someone to an awesome sandwich/brunch, Zelden’s will always be my pick.”

On top of everything else, Irene makes sure that the food is fresh and made with love, coming in several hours early to make everything in house, working in tandem with Shelley. With her well-used black apron tied around her waist and her hair tied up in a perfect messy bun, she works hard to make sure her customers are safe and comfortable.

Irene’s homemade hanging tables dividers out of shower curtains and broom handles, on Thursday, April 29th, 2021. (Georgina Parker/T•)

Although dine-in eating is not currently permitted at the restaurant due to provincial lockdowns, the things put in place to keep people comfortable and distanced, when dining inside was allowed, are still set up. Irene used her sewing machine to turn shower curtains and broom handles into hanging, see-through dividers between tables to help the deli feel safer for customers.

In the few quiet moments during the day, Irene loves to see people’s reactions as they walk past the store front. In the windows and on the street in front of Zelden’s she likes to put up decorations and fun window displays. It started with a cancer fundraiser where people would donate, and in recognition she would put a snowflake in the front window. More recently, she added winter and holiday themed decorations to the windows for the Yonge + St. Clair BIA’s annual Windows of Glam competition. 

The current installation is strands of white fairy lights strung up on a white painted wooden structure to create a glowing archway that people can walk under on their way up or down Yonge Street. 

The sidewalk in front of Zelden’s currently has a white archway, covered in fairy lights, on Thursday, April 29th, 2021. (Georgina Parker/T•)

A mother and her young daughter simultaneously shout “OK, duck!” as they race underneath the decorations together nearly every day. Even though Irene has never met them, there’s a sense of connection through the fun she’s helped provide. “I’m dying to meet them,” she said. A mask doesn’t hide Irene’s infectious laughter and warm smile.

While Irene and Shelley work at the deli nearly every day, they rely on the support from their staff as well. Laurel Greenwood has worked at Zelden’s for nearly as long as it’s been open, give or take a couple of months. Although there aren’t specific titles for the staff, Laurel says she works in a supervisor type of role and spends about 90 per cent of her time working in the kitchen. 

She knows the level of drive and love that the owners have for their business. “They don’t do it because they are trying to make a lot of money, they do it because it’s their passion,” Laurel said.

Although Irene and Shelley have had multiple businesses, Irene admits that the deli is her baby. It serves as a reminder of Shelley’s mother’s cooking and Irene learning traditional recipes from her. It also serves as a way the couple can share their love, culture, and family history with others and form new connections.

A couple of years ago a little boy, out on a walk with his mother almost every day, would come by and stop in front of the store, sometimes popping his head inside, giggling and then quickly running out again. Irene was outside one day and, curious about what was making the child stop in front of the deli day after day, she asked the mother. The mother admitted that she didn’t know but asked if Irene would like to meet her son. 

Excited to meet the boy, Irene said yes. “This is my son Louis,” said the woman. Irene burst into tears. 

She had lost her brother Louis to cancer and the pain was still very present. Irene asked the mother when the boy was born, and she answered nearly two years ago, about the same time Louis died. The mother said the deli was the only place the boy ever stopped when they went for walks. 

Irene had been very close to her brother Louis and felt a connection to him through her experience with the boy. While the interaction brought back the pain of having lost Louis, it also brought a sense of happiness. 

After that day, Irene never saw them again.

Making connections in the community and being able to see their regular customers is something the Zeldens especially miss. The couple are grateful for the new opportunities and business that social media and delivery services have given them though.

The couple is excited to be able to welcome customers inside when it’s safe to do so. “We can’t wait to do brunch again,” Shelley says, “and with all these new customers that we’ve got, I’m kind of anxious to see how things go.”

With lockdowns still in effect, the start date for on-street patio eating through the CaféTO program is up in the air, but the hope is that the season will start sometime in May. After a successful season from July to November in 2020, Irene is planning on adding artificial turf to the patio. “I want to make it cozy and less like you are sitting on the street,” she says. 

The pandemic has created numerous new challenges for businesses and individuals, but the Zeldens have shown strength and optimism even in the hardest times. “Irene and Shelley, they are survivors,” says Laurel. 

Although Shelley is often more reserved, he shares that hope. During the first couple of months of lockdown in early 2020, when COVID-19 first took over Toronto, it was just Irene and Shelley coming in to run the deli every day. Business was down and they couldn’t afford to keep their staff working, but they worked to push through, and they are glad the extra time and energy paid off.

The Zeldens are even thinking about a possible second location based on their success from registering with food delivery services, social media interaction, and their ability to maintain a successful business through the pandemic. 

“All this hard work for a year, because we’ve been open,” Shelley says. “We struggled, but we’ve come out of it.”