The House That Lox Built
I walk into the office at 9AM, Monday through Friday, and each day the place is already buzzing. The trucks are on the road, the air freight is in the sky, and the phones are ringing off the hook. There are a million things to do, but I get my coffee, grab a bagel, some smoked salmon and cream cheese, and then I sit down at my desk to start the day’s work. When I first started at Acme Smoked Fish Corporation, I used to get in in the morning, and get right to work. That was until one of my bosses, Robert Caslow, 71, said to me, “Andrew, get your priorities straight! Grab a bagel and some salmon.”
In Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Acme Smoked Fish is the only company referenced by name in the entry for “Lox”. This New York City institution is inextricably linked to the modern history of appetizing. This institution has helped keep one of this city’s most iconic foods, the bagel with cream cheese and lox, on appetizing menus throughout the five boroughs in the same way that it has been for over a century. They have accomplished this through hard work, succession, and staying in business while adapting to a changing world.
“I’d like to start the story at the end of the nineteenth century in Russia. This is Czarist Russia – the most anti-Semitic country on Earth – and that’s the place that my grandfather was born into,” started Eric Caslow, 73, Acme’s President and a third-generation owner. He continued, “My grandfather’s name was Harry, and his first work experience in America was working with his brother on a horse and wagon distributing smoked fish.”
At work, Eric Caslow has a certain economy of speech, and an air of seriousness that can quickly switch to affability. When asked how much vinegar is used in the pickled herring, he responds, “Just enough.” Eric is barrel chested, with sloping shoulders, and has an inscrutable countenance. Before I sat down with Eric for an interview, I think that he had said about nine words to me, and most of them were “lox”.
“I’m not going to talk about the immigration from Russia, that’s my brother’s schtick,” Robert Caslow pointedly established. Robert is Eric’s brother, as well as Executive Vice President, and the other third-generation owner of Acme. Robert remembers, “As a youngster, I think I was under ten, my grandfather who started this business, Harry Brownstein, would take me with him to the Fulton Fish Market. We’d walk around the market, we’d go from stall to stall, and it seemed to me that he knew everybody. At that time, I didn’t know what he was doing. I didn’t know if he was visiting, or buying fish, or what, but it seemed that at every stall he stopped into there was a little whiskey to be had early in the morning.”
Robert Caslow is quick with a sly smile, but even at about a foot shorter than his son Adam, he can be an intimidating figure. Although, with his business casual dress and New Balance sneakers, he looks more like a high school track and field coach than a smoker of fish. “Eric’s claim is that our grandfather never should have gone into business in the first place, because there was way too much competition, and he had no money. They did survive, I’m not sure how, or why, but they did survive,” elaborated Robert.
One borough, too many smokehouses…
Eric Caslow continued, “His goal was to get off of the horse and wagon and start to process fish himself. He had several failed business ventures, with other Jewish immigrants. Essentially, they all had character flaws. I don’t know what it was about the smoked fish industry in those early days, but a lot of them gambled.”
Eric went on, “He started this business in 1954, and shortly thereafter he was able to connive his two sons to join in the business.” In describing how the Acme ownership changed hands from the Brownstein family to the Caslows, Eric said, “At some point, my father, Rubin Caslow, was allowed to join the business, because he had a block of business. He was the biggest jobber (smoked fishmonger) at the time.” It all stayed in the family, because Rubin Caslow married a Brownstein.
Gary Brownstein, 67, is the son of one of the two Brownstein boys connived into joining the business in 1954. He now manages the slicing department in Brooklyn. He recollects that in those days the Brooklyn smokehouses operated like the Mafia commission. “They were friends. Ruby was friends with these guys. They used to go to the track together,” Gary said. “They used to sit around the table once a year and… you know, it would not be a pretty thing. I mean, it was just different back then.”
Gary Brownstein is tall yet slouched. He has relaxed eyes, a light olive skin tone, and well-manicured silver hair. About his early days, Gary remembers, “Even the floors of the plant, they weren’t flat, they were like cobblestone floors, and you’d be bouncing around. Nothing was easy. I was this skinny little kid, and they used to abuse me!”
Eventually Eric and Robert Caslow took over the business from the second-generation Brownstein and Caslow owners. About this, Robert had to say, “When I came into the business, it was pretty small. If somebody had asked me my five-year plan, I’d have said, ‘I’ve got a five-day plan to get from Monday to Friday.’ That was the goal, to survive to the next week.”
“Going back to when I first started working here, there was still a lot of competition,” Robert added. “There was Marshall’s Smoked Fish, Montrose, Nova Scotia, Acme, and that was just in this section of Brooklyn.”
Mark Russ Federman, former owner of the epochal Lower East Side appetizing establishment Russ & Daughters, described the market when he took over his family’s business in 1978, “At the time, there were many more smokehouses, and most of them in Brooklyn. Our primary supplier at the time was Marshall’s Smoked Fish. Acme was one of our secondary suppliers.” Now, Acme is Russ & Daughter’s primary supplier, and Marshall’s is no more. Buzz Billik, a former partner at Marshall’s, is now Acme’s Chief Sales Officer.
A new generation comes into its own…
David Caslow, 45, Eric’s son and a Co-CEO of the company, describes his entry into the business as a time of great change, “It was a really regionalized, single shop, family business… completely non-corporate, a yelling-and-screaming family business.”
David Caslow is one of the fourth-generation owners. He wears horn-rimmed glasses, has closely cropped curly brown hair, and perpetually looks an hour away from a five o’clock shadow. He humbly described his start at the company with a knowing smile. “As far as early memories,” David says, “Coming here as a kid, and making boxes, working in the salad room, getting my cheeks pinched a thousand times by the Polish ladies… I still feel like when I walk out there that they’re looking at me and want to pinch my cheeks.” At the time though, David didn’t envision a future at Acme. “I was a regular kid, in what I thought was a middle-class household, not giving any thought at all into what the future was going to bring.’” In David’s 23 years at Acme, the company’s revenue has increased eight times over.
Adam Caslow, 35, Robert’s son and the other Co-CEO, has a clean cut and stately sort of baby face that belies his age. In press releases, he is often the visage of the company, and he is another fourth-generation owner. “My history at Acme kind of dates back to wanting to be around my dad,” Adam thought back. “We had these giant barrels of herring, and you had to go in and pick out the whole herring one-by-one at a time, and we would sell them for a dollar a piece. I think these barrels were probably taller than I was, and I was reaching over the barrel on my tippy toes to get to the bottom, and almost practically falling in to pull out these herring.”
Fish Friday is what Acme calls the one day per week where they open to the public for six hours and sell their wares at wholesale prices. Emily Caslow, 40, Robert’s daughter, Adam’s sister, Acme’s Customer Service Manager and President of the Acme Smoked Fish Foundation, and another fourth-generation owner, recalls Fish Fridays, “When I used to come as a kid, and work Fish Friday, it was the local Polish community lining up and asking for ‘Sledzie’, which is herring in Polish. I would climb up on a little step ladder and stick my pink puffy jacket sleeve into a barrel of herring, and my whole arm would be soaked.”
Emily is a diminutive person with keen features. She has dark eyes, dark hair, and a wide smile that exposes her flawless dentition. In describing the evolution of Fish Friday, Emily said, “It all started with us wanting to leave on Friday afternoons with as little inventory as possible. We’d have some extra fish, and so we opened it up, and we’d have some employees buying, but Greenpoint being an extremely Polish community, people would come in for ‘Sledzie’. It was like that for decades, probably three decades, and then somebody wrote… I think that Florence Fabricant wrote an article about Fish Friday in the New York Times.” The popularity exploded.
As the word got out about Acme’s Friday store, it became extremely popular around the holidays. “Around the Jewish holidays it’s the best, when you get the little old ladies who come with their order for the last ten years written out on little pieces of paper,” Emily continued.
The weekly Fish Friday tradition was started by Eric and Robert’s late father – Emily, Adam, and David’s grandfather – Rubin Caslow. David paints a vivid portrait of his grandfather. “Here was a guy who started the business, who was this old school baseball-bat-to-the-cash-register-if-you-didn’t-pay guy, mixing with what was turning into a modern business,” David began. “You’ve got to picture my grandfather, 80 years old. He would come to work wearing seven layers of sweaters and jackets. The inside of his jackets were filled with cigars, gum, and money. He was like this ridiculous character, in the greatest way, the nicest way possible.”
Peter Shelsky owns two eateries in Brooklyn that walk the line between appetizing and delicatessen. I don’t know if Mr. Shelsky coined the term “Jew food renaissance”, but in a recent email he used the term to describe both his appetizing and delicatessen in Cobble Hill, and his bagel shop in Park Slope. About Acme, he said, “They have been our biggest vendor since we opened eight years ago. They’re always there when we need them. They’re a great vendor in that they value what we do.”
There it is, four generations smoking and selling fish. Harry Brownstein started young, in 1903, re-selling smoked and pickled fish from a horse-drawn wagon. He’d buy that fish from the multitude of Brooklyn smokehouses that operated at the turn of the last century. He moved on to smoking his own fish, shortly before his son-in-law Rubin Caslow took over. Eric and Robert Caslow succeeded him, and now their children David, Adam, and Emily are carrying that torch. It’s hard to say whether the culinary tradition of New York city appetizing would continue to exist without Acme Smoked Fish, and the family members behind this corporation, but one thing is for sure, the landscape of that world would look very different.