When Justin King opened his Roseway neighborhood bagel shop, Ben & Esther’s, in 2019, it was designed as a traditional Jewish deli. The shop, named for King’s grandparents, served matzo ball soup, lox, and whitefish salad, as well as bagels slathered with smoked salmon schmear. King wasn’t eating any of those things, however. “I’ve been plant-based for a long time,” he says. “When I opened Ben & Esther’s, I was very business-minded, and I thought that opening a traditional Jewish deli would be good for business. After a year, I couldn’t reconcile that with my principles.”
So, a year into owning his business, in the midst of the pandemic, King slowly but surely started taking the meat off his menu. The Ben & Esther’s team started making lox with salt-roasted carrots, swapped the whitefish for brined-and-smoked hearts of palm, and began baking babka and rugelach with Earth Balance instead of butter. The shift ended up being a hit, especially among Portland’s vegans.
Now, King is looking to expand: first, with a new shop and bakery on NE Alberta, followed by a deli in San Diego. From there, King hopes to bring Ben & Esther’s to the East Coast, to spread the gospel of vegan knishes and not-lox bagels. “I want to make vegan Jewish food accessible to everyone,” he says.
Portland’s new Ben & Esther’s will open in the former Random Order Pie Bar this fall, and will serve as the company’s commissary bakery, churning out rugelach, hamantaschen, babka, and black-and-whites. The deli will have an identical menu to the original location: deli salads by the pound, bagels with shmears made using a Tofutti base, deli sandwiches like vegan corned beef Reubens and tofu “egg” salad, and chicken-free matzo ball soup. The shop is currently around 85 percent vegan, but King says he’s weeks away from releasing a fully vegan menu — dialing in the egg-noodle-free kugel, the vegan matzo ball soup. By the time the Alberta deli opens, both Ben & Esther’s will be 100 percent vegan.
Vegan Jewish delis are rare — not just in Portland, but in the country as a whole. There are vegan delis, like NoButcher in Las Vegas and Orchard Grocer in New York, and there are Jewish delis with vegan items, like the mushroom Reuben at Wise Sons in San Francisco and Los Angeles. But when it comes to 100 percent vegan Jewish delis, the options are slim. “Traditionally Jewish food is all egg,” King says. “I think the reason you don’t see (more vegan Jewish delis)… is probably a combination of people not knowing how, and being unwilling to, experiment. But more so, I don’t think people put principles before profit.”
For that reason, King is looking to open more Ben & Esther’s, and not just in Portland. While King is preparing to open the Alberta shop, he’s also working on a deli in San Diego with barber Marc Bennett. “I used to own barber shops, and I have a friend from the industry down there,” he says. Bennett, enamored with the original Ben & Esther’s, mentioned that he’d love to open one with King in San Diego. “There’s good vegan and Jewish populations in San Diego; it seemed to make sense,” he says. “And [Bennett] has the same work ethic as me.”
The San Diego shop will be something of a beta test, before King pursues more expansions and franchising in other parts of the country. King, who grew up in a New York Jewish family, is particularly excited to bring Ben & Esther’s to the East Coast, if possible. “My whole family warned me against switching to a vegetarian menu. I was admittedly scared, but I just figured I have a responsibility as a business owner,” he says. “I’m already creating more waste and destruction by having a business — I’m using more energy than your average household, packaging, stuff like that. I just want to operate as ethically as I can.”
Ben & Esther’s will open this fall at 1800 NE Alberta Street.