By Linda Barnard
Howard “Buzzy” Busgang says he’s living a “gefilte fish out of water” tale by opening Montreal-style deli Buzzy’s Luncheonette on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, a place he claims has “more bears than Jews.”
But there’s an unexpected punchline to this Montreal-born stand-up comic and TV writer-producer’s gags.
When he and wife Melanie Weaver relocated from Los Angeles, opening Buzzy’s two years ago without any previous restaurant experience, it quickly became an unofficial Jewish community centre for locals hungry for more than meltingly tender smoked meat.
Brisk brisket business
Even with COVID-19 WorkSafeBC health protocols in place, the small eatery does a brisk business in brisket. Locals come by for takeout or can eat sandwiches at several outdoor tables.
“We have a constant stream of people and we always get asked the same question: ‘Do any Jews live here? Are there Jews on Salt Spring?’ and I say, ‘Don’t you people talk to each other?’” Busgang says.
He and Weaver have done more than fill a brisket-shaped hole for islanders of all backgrounds yearning for authentic smoked meat. Buzzy’s has created a Jewish community hub where none previously existed on Salt Spring, population 10,000, and about a half-hour ferry ride from Victoria.
The closest synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El, is in Victoria.
As soon as the tiny deli opened, Salt Spring’s Jewish residents started showing up to eat and kibbitz. “This new community has formed around Buzzy’s Luncheonette,” says regular Curt Firestone.
“We don’t belong here!” Busgang, 61, says of the decision to open a Jewish deli on the island. “It makes no sense. It’s almost like a joke, but it’s not a joke. It works.”
In fact, they do belong here and were quickly embraced by locals. Sure, some customers have to practise their pronunciation before placing an order for The Rabinowitz, Busgang’s take on a Reuben. They may fail when they take the “Yiddish word of the week” multiple-choice quiz on the blackboard, or be loudly teased for not knowing what a knish is.
It goes both ways. Weaver admits she once suggested smoked salmon on a bagel with a schmear to a customer looking for a vegetarian lunch option.
The smoked meat always sells out, while the one-liners and laughs are on the house. Quick-quipping Busgang has become a local favourite.
On a Tuesday when I dropped in after visiting several stalls in the weekly farmers market (with its ideal growing micro-climate, Salt Spring is famous for its amazing fruit and vegetables), customers were ordering Old School smoked meat sandwiches or The Hungry Jew — smoked meat, coleslaw, two perfectly crisp latkes and a generous shpritz of horseradish sauce.
Weaver is the latke maker. It’s her mom’s recipe. No, you can’t have it.
Black Cherry Soda and kosher dills
Buzzy’s is tiny, located along with a variety of small eateries and shops behind the Ganges Gas station at the centre of Salt Spring. The cheery décor is classic deli. Framed jokes fill a wall, from classic puns to Henny Youngman and Phyllis Diller chestnuts. There’s Black Cherry Soda in the cooler and a stadium seat from the beloved old Montreal Forum.
For now, the “celebrity guest” chefs, aka unpaid staff who came for a nosh and end up pitching in, aren’t helping out to keep outside contact to a minimum.
The deli is in a part of Canada more associated with organic farms, artisans, well-heeled retirees and a couple of generations of laid-back hippies than Jewish eats. Busgang was smitten when he first visited Salt Spring 15 years ago and bought some land. He and Weaver married in 2005 and when she first saw the island in 2016, she knew why her husband fell in love with it. They decided to ditch the L.A. rat race and moved here with daughter Hannah, now 10, a year later.
Weaver says she’s astonished how enthusiastically locals are rooting for them to do well, adding that this is the first time she’s truly felt at home somewhere.
Busgang may not have known anything about the restaurant business, but he knew how to make great Montreal smoked meat. He’d been feeding it to friends in L.A. for years.
He dry brines large slabs of Alberta brisket for eight days, gives them a “bath” to remove the surface salt, then covers them in dry spice rub. They’re smoked over hickory for eight hours, finishing with a couple of tenderizing hours in a steamer imported from Montreal.
The bagels are from Mount Royal Bagel Factory in Victoria. But in this land of artisanal bread and whole grains, finding proper chewy-soft oval rye has been a challenge. He’s close to cracking the case.
Busgang opens the lid on the steamer and the seductive, spicy smell of smoked meat rises as he drops a chunk into the slicer. “Alexa, play klezmer music,” he tells the robotic assistant, not sure if it can comply. The sound of clarinets fills the room. Busgang seems pleasantly surprised.
It’s not a surprise, however, that Busgang, who worked on hit shows like Boy Meets World and The Tournament, puts on his writer-producer’s hat and sees the potential for a sitcom set in the world of Buzzy’s Luncheonette.
So, is he making a living? Busgang thinks it over. “Making a living? We’re making a life. Even better.”
Buzzy’s Luncheonette: Ganges Alley, 122-149 Fulford-Ganges Rd., Salt Spring Island.
Open Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Facebook page: facebook.com/buzzysluncheonette