The idea came from the film’s co-producer Richard Elson, with whom Garry Beitel had worked before on several earlier films including the acclaimed Bonjour! Shalom! “When Richard proposed the idea of a documentary on Schwartz’s it wasn’t immediately evident how to shoot a film in such a cramped noisy environment. But Schwartz’s was a landmark that I had grown up with and I was surprised that no one had yet made a film about the place. The challenge of getting inside the Schwartz legend appealed to me and my partner, Barry Lazar who is also a co-producer on this film. For me, it was especially important to find an original approach that would it make it clear that this was not a promotional film.”

For several months before shooting began, Garry went regularly to Schwartz’s just to observe. “I soon realized that I was drawn to the stories about the people who work at the deli – the meat cutters, the waiters, the busboys – many who had been there for over 20 years, some as long as 40 years. Talking to the staff at Schwartz’s I realized that their work wasn’t just a job. They felt they were part of a community and that working at Schwartz’s filled them with pride and gave them a sense of purpose which other restaurant workers rarely have. And this feeling of belonging also extended to the panhandlers who have been earning their livelihood outside the deli’s front entrance for years. It soon became clear that Schwartz’s Deli could become the backdrop for a series of interweaving stories that I would follow over a year of shooting.”


For days at a time, Garry was a fixture at the counter watching and listening to what was going on - during both the day and at night shifts. There are close to 40 people who work at Schwartz’s – all men except for some of the women cashiers. How to find the characters and the stories that captured the dynamics of the place became the focus of Garry’s early research. How did people move up the hierarchy from the kitchen to busboy to the counter to the sought after jobs of waiter, cutter and grill man? And who were the most compelling characters? Who would be camera friendly, who would be intimidated? Little by little, he stepped inside the universe of the people who work at the deli and the parallel world of the panhandlers who also formed an integral part of the of the Schwartz hierarchy.

In the early stages it seemed important to place the 78 year old restaurant in an historical context. But to our surprise, after an exhaustive search of archival sources, we found very few useful photos or moving images. “We made a decision that the story would take place in the present. It would be a film about Schwartz’s, as it is now and the drama would happen while we were filming.”


“We were a small crew, Marc Gadoury on camera, André Boisvert recording sound, me directing and alternately Barry and Richard coordinating the logistics. We found five or six key stations in the deli where we could be as unobtrusive as possible. Because I had spent some time getting to know people it didn’t take long for the crew to begin to blend in. Our approach was to use an observational, cinema-verité style where we would just wait for things to happen, for the stories to emerge. Sometimes we would wait for hours with nothing of interest occurring. We’d move from station to station trying to find a better angle, shooting endless, often repetitive footage of sandwiches being prepared and eaten, tables set and cleared. Then suddenly, someone would walk in, sit in front of the camera and we’d capture this incredible moment. We’d be pinching ourselves afterwards for our good fortune in being at the right place, at the right time.”

“As compelling as the verité moments were, I felt that I also needed to go further. I decided to conduct in-depth interviews with the people who were emerging as the main characters. I wanted to probe more deeply into their backgrounds, their attachment to Schwartz’s. The only time to do this was in quiet of the early mornings when there were no customers. I also decided to record more spontaneous interviews, informally, in the midst of the action. Combining the interviews with the verité moments allows the characters and their stories to develop with a stronger feeling of intimacy.”


Sound recording played an unusually significant role during the filming often guiding what and who would be filmed each day. “On a typical day we would set up the camera and then just watch what was going on. We were developing relationships with the staff. Not everyone felt equally comfortable being filmed and that could change from day to day. So each time we came, I would decide which characters to follow. André, our soundman would then attach wireless mikes to the selected employees. It was fascinating to watch how people changed when they realized that we could hear them even as we zoomed in on their exchanges from a distance. It’s that curious thing that happens in verité filming when people act themselves while putting on a subtle performance for the camera.”


Shooting over a year’s time meant that we could deepen our relationships and watch stories develop over time. Several key characters emerged. We learn about general manger Frank Silva’s devotion to the deli, and to the staff; we also discover how his commitment and long hours come with a personal cost as his chronic shoulder pain worsens. We watch as busboy Alex Lebel creates original poetry in between table clearing and then later as he struggles to prove himself as a newly appointed counterboy. We hear waiter Mike Nelli talk about his reluctance to work at the hectic deli, then observe his delight in being part of the magical atmosphere of the place and conclude with his philosophical musings about probably growing old at Schwartz’s. And then there’s Ryan Larkin, the famed subject of the Oscar winning animation film, Ryan, who continues to panhandle outside Schwartz’s even as his health takes an unexpected turn.

Filmmaker Garry Beitel (centre) became a fixture at Schwartz’s during his year and a half of researching, shooting and editing.