Leonard Punia couldn’t say that he didn’t enjoy his meals at the Newtown, Pa., delicatessen he frequented. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have considered making the trip. The problems were the time and distance investments required to get to the eatery from his home in Princeton.
So, during a 2007 visit to the deli — Moish and Itzy’s in the Summit Square Shopping Center — Punia, whose career as a real estate developer spans more than six decades, made a proposal to proprietor Gary Schindler.
“I was tired of having to go all the way to Newtown or East Brunswick if I wanted to eat at a deli,” said Punia, a longtime supporter of United Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks.
“So I said to Gary, ‘Why don’t we open a delicatessen on Route 1 in Lawrence Township?’
“He told me he’d think about it and let me know,” Punia continued. “It took a while, maybe a year or so, but he eventually came to me and said he was ready.”
Thus, a partnership between an 83-year-old real estate maven and a 48-year-old restaurateur was launched.
Even though Schindler’s expertise is in delicatessens — he’s been operating Moish and Itzy’s for roughly 14 years — he is well aware of the three most important rules in real estate. “Location, location, and location,” he said, chuckling.
“After I told Len I thought the timing was right to take him up on his offer, we agreed to get in touch if one of us saw something that might be of interest,” said Schindler, a Yardley, Pa., resident. “Anyway, one day last spring, I’m driving down Route 1, and I see a sign in front of Denny’s that says, ‘Restaurant for lease.’ Within about a minute, I was on the phone with Len.”
The building, located at 3331 Brunswick Pike in Lawrence, sits along Route 1 in a high-traffic area in front of the Mercer Mall. When Punia saw the proposed location for their joint venture, he shared Schindler’s enthusiasm.
“I have confidence in Gary’s judgment, and he has confidence in mine,” Punia said. “The nice thing is, as soon as we walked in the door, it just felt right to both of us.”
There was a lease to be negotiated, extensive renovations to be completed — from kitchen to dining room to exterior — staff to be hired, and an opening date to be agreed upon.
On March 13, Gary and Lenny’s New York Delicatessen hosted its grand opening, complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that included the participation of numerous elected officials and community leaders.
According to the co-owners, early returns have been overwhelmingly positive.
“Since we opened, an incredible number of people have thanked us for doing what we’ve done,” Schindler said. “That speaks volumes to the need for a deli in this [geographical] area, which is exactly what Len told me in the very beginning.
“Based on my experience at Moish and Itzy’s, where we didn’t suffer the way so many other businesses did during the economic downturn, I believed that we were as recession proof as a restaurant could be, so long as customers liked our product. Moving forward, if the economy does come all the way back, we just might be onto something here.”
Since the Jewish-style delicatessen is located on a roadway used by a significant number of commuters to and from New York City, the owners felt their establishment should be measured against New York delis. Hence, the not-so-subtle name, “New York Delicatessen.”
That’s why the menu includes authentic selections as hot corned beef and pastrami sandwiches and even Junior’s Cheesecake.
“When I hear people say things like, ‘This meal was as good as Stage Deli in New York,’ that’s music to my ears,” Schindler said, while his partner nodded in agreement.
Punia, who has a wide array of communal affiliations, including with the federation, has extensive real estate holdings in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. He recently made a donation of more than $1.3 million to the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro in memory of his wife, Renee, who died last August following a lengthy battle with cancer. Punia and his family also have been supporters of the Greenwood House Home for the Jewish Aged for more than 35 years. His daughter-in-law, Cheryl Punia, serves as president of the Ewing facility.
However, the deli represents Punia’s first venture into the restaurant business.
“There was a need,” he explained, “and I was convinced that if we went about this the right way, we could make it work. So far, so good.”