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Charlotte Jewish deli to open brick-and-mortar location near Camp North End this fall

·5 min read

In 2016, Rob Clement set a goal for himself: “I basically told myself that by the time I turned 35, I was going to own a restaurant.”

Flash forward to June 11, 2021, when Clement, owner of the popular pop-up Jewish deli and bakery Meshugganah, officially announced the opening of its first brick-and-mortar location — on the day right before his 35th birthday.

With almost 20 years of experience in the restaurant industry, Meshugganah brings authentic Jewish cuisine to the South, such as Clement’s scratch pastrami sandwiches and items from pastry chef and “babka queen” Hannah Woociker.

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Meshugganah first opened as a pop-up at Free Range on Sept. 6, 2020 and sold 16 sandwiches. Six months later, the deli sold 350 items in an hour. Now, after launching a Kickstarter in May to raise funds for a brick-and-mortar location, the business is heading to North Graham Street in Fall 2021 and is set to become Charlotte’s first scratch Jewish kitchen. The location was first announced by Axios Charlotte.

From pop-up to restaurant

The idea of becoming a “deli man” had always been one of Clement’s dreams.

“I’ve been with my wife 11 years, and I think when we first met, I told her I wanted to own a deli one day.”

But Clement had never known what exactly that would look like. In May 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, he left his current job. Shortly after, his wife, Franki, received a message from a Jewish moms Facebook group asking if her husband would be interested in teaching a virtual cooking class. Those initial classes, held over Zoom, led to the creation of Piedmont’s Bounty, a meal kit service. Rob and Franki would pick up farm-fresh ingredients, drop them off at client’s homes and then lead a virtual class on how to prepare the dishes.

At first, the dishes were all Southern-inspired. But once some clients learned that Rob and his family were Jewish, they requested a class on preparing food for Shabbat, the Sabbath. And they loved it.

For the Clement’s, Jewish food is comfort food. Over quarantine, with Rob not working on Friday nights, the family began preparing Shabbat together more to expose their children to their culture.

“I’ve cooked a lot of other people’s food for my entire career,” Clement said. “I’ve never really dove into my food, like I grew up with.”

Gradually Clement found himself preparing Jewish dishes for others, too. When the dog of their close friends died in June 2020, Rob and Franki wanted to extend their support. They prepared traditional Jewish dishes like matzo ball soup, black and white cookies and kasha varnishkes.

It was one of the first times Clement remembers preparing those dishes for someone other than his family.

“They reached out afterwards, they were like, ‘Rob — this is the best food you’ve ever made.’”

Later, Clement heard of an opportunity to hold a pop-up at Free Range Brewing. At first, he was willing to do anything. But the brewery owner just said: “Well, do whatever you want.”

The pop-up proved the perfect opportunity to combine his culture with his culinary career.

That night, Clement bought a domain name and created a logo, and Meshugganah, which means crazy or senseless in Yiddish, was born.

And family and friends thought the idea was crazy. With mass restaurant closures, many doubted the possibility of successfully opening a business in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“But when else is there going to be an opportunity that I’m sitting at home doing nothing, and I can just try it?”

Through Meshugganah, Clement has found people just like him, craving comfort foods from their culture and childhood.

“I believe that the best food is honest food,” he said. “People cooking what they love, putting who they are on a plate.”

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Striving for a better business model

Clement doesn’t like to use the term “head chef.” Instead, he calls himself Meshugganah’s head mensch: an honorable, decent, authentic person.

Part of Meshugganah’s goal is to put the wellbeing of employees and staff first, stemming from Clement’s own negative experiences in the restaurant industry. “I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and I’ve never had health insurance,” he said. Until now.

New employees will have the ability to become equity partners in the business to ensure that profit is shared with all individuals putting in the work every day. Team members will have access to paid vacation, paid maternity/paternity leave, retirement options, equity options, and nights off with their families, according to its Kickstarter.

The business model aims to make the hospitality industry better, one step at a time.

“My hope is that if we can create a better environment with this restaurant … if one person that works for us picks up something from what we’re trying to do, and they end up doing something — it’s like the snowball effect,” Clement said. “All it takes is, it just has to start.”

A mix of the modern and the nostalgic

The 3,000 square-foot location will feature multiple stations for ordering, built to support takeaway business. Inside will be a deli and bakery counter as well as a grab-and-go section.

Formerly a truck depot, the interior features high wooden ceilings and brick walls, details that the business hopes to preserve. The restaurant aims to combine the nostalgia of an old New York deli with a modern aesthetic, Clement said.

On the menu will be popular items like pastrami sandwiches, scratch-made bagels and knishes.

Clement said Meshugganah aims to officially open in the fall.

“I will do everything in my power to make sure we are open before Hanukkuh,” Clement said.

For now, Messhuggunah is continuing to host pop-ups across the city this summer at sites including Not Just Coffee and future neighbors Petty Thieves Brewing Co.

“We’re going to grind away and do our thing between now and then.”

MESHUGGANAH

1108 N. Graham St., next to Petty Thieves Brewing Co.

Opening: fall 2021

Instagram: @meshugganah

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