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A new kind of Jewish deli/bagel shop is flourishing in Atlanta

techsm5

When married couple Jennifer and Ben Johnson and their partner, chef Todd Ginsberg, opened The General Muir in Atlanta in 2013, they weren’t looking to redefine old-school Jewish deli meats. As the NY Historical Society’s show The Art of the Jewish Deli demonstrated in December, the Jewish grocery store was fading.

As Jennifer Johnson described it, “delicatessen customers were aging, dispersing, assimilating, and a new generation wasn’t occupying those seats.” Many Jewish deli meat lovers were moving away from high-calorie, overfat, pastrami and corned beef sandwiches.

Thus, The General Muir offers a much more diverse menu than traditional deli meats in order to appeal to a wider audience.

General Muir, named for the ship that Jennifer’s mother, a Holocaust survivor, took to New York from Germany from a displaced persons camp in 1949, specializing in ‘bagels and pastrami home-cooked boiled, and classic yet creative American cuisine at a highly executed level” prepared by Chef Ginsburg, she said.

It followed their original West Egg restaurant, which opened in 2004 in Atlanta and is still going strong, which they opened with partners Shelley Sweet and chef Andrew Smith. It’s an all-day breakfast and brunch spot, which Jennifer says specializes in “southern-inspired comfort food, which includes shrimp and grits, chicken biscuits fried and tofu pans”.

Johnson described The General Muir as an “upscale Jewish deli where you could see yourself dining with a nice bar with thoughtful cocktails.”

But opening a full-service Jewish deli/restaurant was always a risk. Johnson acknowledges that “there really wasn’t a deli scene in Atlanta, just a few bagel shops. I don’t know of any place that calls itself a deli and makes its own pastrami.

But the General Muir served gourmet morning coffee, full breakfasts, and an upscale dinner menu that included roast duck and oxtail stew. Additionally, it offered herbal items for those who were health conscious. It was indeed a Jewish deli and bagel shop, combined with an upscale restaurant.

She calls it a “sacrilegious mix of deli meats and appetizing with smoked meats, smoked fish, dairy meats, all under one roof”. Their goal was to create an “inviting neighborhood restaurant featuring well-made, classic deli items that we felt were lacking in Atlanta,” she added.

Both Jennifer and Ben Johnson were lawyers who opened West Egg, with no culinary and restaurant experience, immersing themselves in their new roles. Jennifer performed a variety of duties including “manager, bartender, and banana baker.” They financed it with “a shoestring budget of less than $200,0000,” she noted, which they borrowed against their house mortgage.

Johnson and their partners now own several restaurants, including Fred’s Meat and Bread and Yalla’s, both at Krog Street Market, and Wood’s Chapel BBQ.

At The General Muir, pastrami and corned beef sandwiches are still popular and make up about 25% of their sandwich sales, but their award-winning burger tops them. The same goes for his Reuben corned beef sandwich, which outsells his pastrami. And who could resist Avenue A, she says, a bagel with a schmear topped with nova, avocado and dill? Those interested in healthier dishes can choose trout salad, smoked beets and arugula.

It attracts a wide audience, including Emory University students and the university community since it is located close to campus. It is also located near the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters and near several Atlanta neighborhoods, including Virginia-Highland.

Since the pandemic, he had to make adjustments. It streamlined its menu, adjusted its hours, and struggled to recruit enough staff.

But Johnson sees The General Muir as more than a Jewish grocery store. “It’s a community hub for breakfast, lunch and dinner. People find a community here, which improves their daily lives,” she explains. It’s so much more than corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, in more ways than one.

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techsm5

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