It’s pure coincidence that back in 1969 Ron Peskin would purchase a deli that shared the name of his son. Brent’s Deli had opened just two years earlier in a nondescript stripmall on a lazy intersection in Northridge. The rigors of restaurant ownership quickly overwhelmed its founder, who sold the business to Peskin for a mere $1,800 – and $40,000 in debt on the side.
Peskin, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, was raised on deli life. His uncle owned Linker’s in Sherman Oaks, and he put in time at Art’s in Studio City and Mort’s in Tarzana as well. In fact, Peskin accumulated a Gladwellian amount (about 10,000 hours) of delicatessen experience, which fueled his belief that he could strike out on his own.
So with wife Patricia and their two children, along with 11 employees and one delivery truck, Peskin embarked on a journey that, nearly a half-century later, has paid dividends higher than a monster-stacked pastrami on rye.
Today, some two decades after sinking into one of their booths for the first time, this writer finds himself once again at Brent’s on a bustling Monday morning, sitting across from Peskin’s son-in-law, Marc Hernandez. It was Hernandez who lobbied for, opened, and now manages the Westlake Village location. Hernandez first came onboard as a driver back in 1988. He returned to the restaurant in 1997 after college and began dating Peskin’s daughter, Carie. The two wed in 2001. Hernandez knows well the story of Brent’s early days. “For the first 18 months, [Ron] worked every day and made every sandwich. He felt if every sandwich was perfect, people would keep coming and so he made sure everything was perfect.”
While a noble goal, perfection is not a one-man operation; it requires a well-organized team to sustain in the long run. Hence, a sense of family permeates the business. Hernandez explains that Brent’s looks for employees who will fit the company philosophy. “We hire for behavior and train for performance … we hire nice, friendly people with our same values.”
While hiring practices are just the tip of the iceberg, they have an indelible effect on an establishment’s identity. “Every person, from the server to the busboy to the cashier, is a reflection of what we do,” says Hernandez. “When it comes to service, our goal is to provide the highest quality food and service … that is what we want to do consistently.”
Opening in a new market opened new doors for Brent’s Deli and the family at the helm. Nestled into the heart of the Conejo Valley, the second location afforded the restaurant and its patrons the ability to not just meet for pleasure, but also for business.
It’s no secret that business is in session as deals are negotiated over a plate of pickles and mile-high pastrami on rye. Hernandez describes one Westlake Village patron who regularly will schedule a meeting over breakfast on one side of the restaurant and then migrate to a second meeting, over lunch, on the other side of the restaurant.
While a second location and expansion into Ventura County put Brent’s on the map as a business lunch destination, organic growth and increased demand resulted in a booming catering business. Catering represents 20 percent of the company’s bottom line, with nine refrigerated trucks covering a vast swath of terrain. Hernandez points out that Brent’s caters events “anywhere in Southern California. From San Diego to Santa Barbara … we’ve even been to Lake Arrowhead.”
Hernandez relates that the Brent’s menu is a staple at what he calls “life cycle” events – be it a bris, a wedding, or a funeral – as well as numerous corporate lunches and functions. This connection to the community extends to “whatever [Brent’s] can do to help out, we do and we feel that is important.”
While it’s the little things—such as donating gift cards to silent auctions, temples, churches, schools—that remain constant, Brent’s has also hosted two charitable golf tournaments, raising more than $100,000 for the Boys & Girls Club. Currently, the restaurant is focused and working hard with the nonprofit organization involved with the Las Virgenes Schools.
Though Peskin has curtailed his involvement in day-to-day proceedings (he relinquished the duty of making every single sandwich many years ago), the patriarch of the business remains a very visible presence at the Northridge location. “[Ron] comes in and does what he does best,” says Hernandez. “He works the room, talks to customers, he hangs out up front.” In addition to being a “people” person, Ron has knack for prioritizing within the business, adds Hernandez. “He is a very good compass for myself and Brent. He will say, ‘Here is what’s going well, and here is what we need to work on.’”
Peskin’s enduring passion, as well as the family’s attention to the business community and the community at large, continues to be its claim to fame. Noted restaurant barometer Zagat has rated Brent’s Deli the No. 1 delicatessen in Los Angeles 18 years running, and in 2013 cited the neighborhood mainstay as the city’s fifth most popular restaurant of any sort.
So whether you’re a regular or a first-timer, a booth and fully customizable menu await you. Hernandez points out that special orders, add-ons, and substitutions are gladly accommodated. While you’re not likely to overhear anyone utter, “I’ll have what she’s having” (a la Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally), you will hear the sound of commerce and community mingling in a spirited cacophony. Sandwiches hot and cold, breakfast day and night, burgers and dogs, soups, behemoth black and white cookies, and even a page packed with healthy alternatives – the predictable variety at Brent’s is matched only by five decades of consistency.