Aliza J. Sokolow

Factor’s, an L.A. institution, has become a go-to in the Jewish community for life’s biggest celebrations and also everything else.

Andy Wang
May 16, 2018

Factor’s Famous Deli, an iconic Los Angeles restaurant that’s celebrating its 70th anniversary this month, is an institution that always has an eye on adaptation.

“See the shine on it?” Debbie Markowitz Ullman asks as she brings over a plate of glistening and luscious hand-cut pastrami. “It’s because it’s slow-roasted for four to five hours, and that’s what made all the difference in how the texture is.”

Factor’s, which was opened by Abe and Esther Factor, has been at the same Pico Boulevard location since 1948. Debbie’s father, Herman Markowitz, purchased the deli in 1969. About 80 percent of its customers are regulars, including families that have brought a fourth generation into the restaurant. The core of the business, obviously, is classic Jewish deli food.

But Debbie, who runs Factor’s with her older sister and her older brother, Suzee and Marvin Markowitz, knows there’s a lot of value that comes with revising the classics. Factor’s changed the way it prepares and serves its pastrami about a year-and-a-half ago, for example. 

“Since we’ve changed the way we roast it, we’re probably selling four times as much,” Debbie says.

In the past, Factor’s cooked its pastrami for less time and machine-sliced it.

“It was good before,” Debbie says. “Now it’s like another level. Before, we were cooking it less. We were machine-slicing it thinner. When you have it this tender and you machine-cut it, lots of it gets lost and crumbled. When you hand-slice it, it stays together better.”

Factor’s, which had an over-the-top, sold-out anniversary celebration on Tuesday night with guest chefs Nancy Silverton, Adam Perry Lang, Hedy Goldsmith, Jonathan Waxman, Josiah Citrin, Bruce Kalman, and Micah Wexler, is a restaurant with something for everyone.

It’s a rare non-Kosher spot in an Orthodox area of L.A., and it’s got upwards of 400 items on its menu, most of which are available for takeout and the increasingly popular delivery orders that come in via apps like Postmates, DoorDash, and UberEats. (Factor’s also fulfills some delivery orders itself.)

“The traditional deli fare is something that’s important to us, but since the ’80s on, we’ve definitely progressed our menu and I would consider us to be more than a deli,” Debbie says. “We’ve added Asian stir-fries. We have Mexican food. We have wraps, paninis, and tons of salads. At first, when we were a deli in the beginning, there were two salads. Now, there’s about 15.”

Debbie laughs when I look at the menu and point out that there are actually close to 30 salads. She’s known at the restaurant for doing things like making new dressings by mixing together existing dressings, so the experimentation never stops.

“I’m not a trained chef, but I like to play with different concoctions,” Debbie says.

Aliza J. Sokolow

The restaurant’s most popular salad, Debbie’s Chopped #1, has been turned into a special sandwich for this month’s anniversary celebration. Instead of having lettuce, turkey, salami, Swiss cheese, red onion, avocado, tomato, and cucumber in a salad, the ingredients are served on grilled rye bread. The cheese is melted, the salami is grilled, and the turkey is warmed in broth to keep it juicy. The vegetables are mixed in ranch dressing and stacked on top like coleslaw. It’s delicious.

Another anniversary special is a black-and-white cookie shake, made with Fosselman’s vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and crumbled cookie pieces. (Fosselman’s is a new supplier for Factor’s.) The restaurant also plans to serve Fosselman’s cappuccino double chip, a habit-forming, crunchy concoction that’s been a sensation at Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood.

Factor’s, where Debbie is in charge of a massive, full-service catering business, is a restaurant that touches so many facets of its customers’ lives.

“One of the things that I like is the feeling when people come to me for all their life-cycle events,” Debbie says. “You do a kid’s bris and then the parents call and say, ‘Hey, it’s his bar mitzvah.’ We’re there for the happy times of their lives and then, unfortunately, the ending of their life, too.”

Factor’s has become a go-to in the L.A. Jewish community for shiva and funerals. Suzee remembers a recent conversation when somebody told her that it was nice knowing that one phone call to Debbie would take care of all their catering needs during a sad and chaotic time.

“When somebody dies, things happen rapidly, people don’t have time to figure out everything,” Suzee says. “We take care of that for them. I think it’s a big honor to serve your community and to feel you’re a part of the community.”

Funerals are reminders that nobody lives forever, but Factor’s feels like a place that will endure for generations. Just check out the children’s section of the menu, with about 40 items named after young relatives and customers. (Some of the items are the result of parents donating to a local temple in exchange for a menu placement.) So many of Factor’s guests are just getting started in life.

And this restaurant, which makes its own knishes and soups while getting lox from Brooklyn’s Acme Smoked Fish, has added modern touches like Groundwork Coffee and many gluten-free and vegan items. Plus, Factor’s, which started as just one small room and later took over adjacent spaces that were occupied by a bakery, a Chinese laundry, a pharmacy, and a Jewish store, continues to expand in an era when this kind of deli feels like an endangered species. (There have been recent rumors that Nate ’n Al, the Beverly Hills Jewish deli where Herman worked before he bought Factor’s, is on the block.)

“We have to find ways to bring younger generations in,” Suzee says. “Delis have to evolve. Delis have been dying. I think if you change, chances are better that you’ll survive.”

So Factor’s is adding about 2,500 square feet to its existing 5,000 square feet and creating a new gourmet market with a hot case for dishes like short ribs and chicken. There will be fresh sandwiches and sides. There will be “unusual items” like hard-to-find crackers, cookies, and sauces. Debbie hopes to open the market in the fall. She and her family also run The Mark, a big event space down the street that’s hosted many parties, including Tuesday night’s anniversary celebration, where Kalman was a big hit with his cacio e pepe bar.

Before Herman died of cancer in 1973, he told his children something about Factor’s that they’ve never forgotten: “If you take care of this place, it will take care of you.”

“It did mean a lot to him that we carried it on,” Debbie says.

It will likely be carried on for at least another generation. Marvin’s daughter Lauren is the restaurant’s full-time bookkeeper. Debbie’s 19-year-old daughter Maggie has worked at Factor’s and will be going to culinary and restaurant management school in New York. Debbie’s 16-year-old son Jake recently started as a host at Factor’s. The way the family sees it is simple: As long as there’s one person in the family who wants to keep the restaurant, Factor’s will be a Markowitz-run business.

Meanwhile, 92-year-old Lili Markowitz still comes in to eat at the restaurant that’s been in her family for nearly five decades.

“She comes in at like 2 o’clock and she’ll schmooze with people and sit around,” Debbie says. “She’s like our salt-control person. She’ll yell at the chef if she tastes too much salt in the soup.”

Aliza J. Sokolow

It’s just part of the daily fabric of Factor’s, where Debbie and her siblings have been helping out since they were children, where Suzee will kiss and hug customers all day long.

Debbie was just 6 when her father took over the restaurant; she remembers pouring water there when she wasn’t in elementary school, and she officially started working at Factor’s when she was 13. Suzee, who is four-and-half years older than Debbie, remembers being 14 and riding her bike from her West Hollywood home to Factor’s on Saturdays, so she could be the opening cashier at 6 a.m. The sisters have done (and continue to do) everything at their family restaurant. One day last week, Debbie waitressed for about 45 minutes when things got busy.

But the story of Factor's starts much further back, when Herman and Lili first met. During the Holocaust, Lili was asleep inside a school in Romania that had been liberated when Herman first set eyes on her. Herman was part of the Czechoslovakian resistance army and was looking for his siblings when he saw Lili. He found his siblings. He waited for Lili to wake up. Lili, who had lost her family, opened her eyes and suddenly found her new life.

Herman and Lili got married shortly after they met. Herman had a restaurant in Prague before he and Lili moved to America, first to Cleveland and then to Los Angeles. When Lili goes to Factor’s every day, she sees Herman’s legacy in every piece of hand-cut pastrami but also in every smile she gets from longtime guests and their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“It’s just incredible bonds,” Debbie says of the interactions her family has with the guests at Factor’s. “The relationships are so special and last a lifetime. Those are my biggest memories. It’s not like your average restaurant when you walk in and it’s only about the food. It’s about the connections.”

So for its anniversary celebration, Factor’s is spending the next two weeks honoring customers, Debbie says. Guests will get free raffle tickets for dining at Factor’s, and there will be daily drawings for prizes like T-shirts and $70 gift cards. The grand prize at the end of the celebration will be 70 pastrami sandwiches, which the winner can redeem all at once or over any time period they choose. It sounds ideal for a family party or many family parties. It’s exactly what you’d expect from Factor’s.

Factor’s Famous Deli, 9420 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, 310-278-9175

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