“Kibbitz with a nosh.” To make small talk while nibbling. That’s what I was met with one brisk Sunday morning when I entered Kohn’s Kosher Deli and Restaurant. Three gentlemen sat at worn tables and ate their breakfast. For the past 20 years, these gentlemen have gathered to “joke and eat, forget what they teased each other about, then return the next week.” Traditions like these are exactly what new owner AJ Moll wants to continue to harness at this beloved establishment.
Opened in 1963 by Holocaust survivors Bobbi and Simon Kohn, Kohn’s is the embodiment of a New-York-style deli — in the middle of Missouri. Since the early 2000s, the St. Louis area has lost more than 10 Jewish and kosher restaurants; Kohn’s is the last freestanding kosher deli in the state. Once you open its doors, you hop in a time machine back to the 60s, when the deli first opened. The rustic cash registers and simple décor allow the quintessential hanging white-and-red deli menu to stand out. The murals on the walls are vibrant, but don’t overshadow the plethora of hanging family photos. The staff’s bright smiles deliver that old-school hospitality as they walk around wearing “home of the killer pastrami” shirts. It feels like home — or Bubbe’s house.
Inside these four walls, there is anything you can think of when it comes to kosher goods. Kohn’s grocer has frozen foods, canned goods and Israeli snacks. The butcher offers everything from special cuts of beef to bison, chicken and duck. Kohn’s extensive bakery is full of rich bagels, sugary donuts and eggy challah. The head baker, Keith, is the last European-trained baker to come from St. Louis’ historic Pratzel’s Bakery.
But Kohn’s is most famous for its deli and restaurant. Taking center stage at the counter is what the deli’s known for: the killer pastrami. They curate this savory delicacy in-house, the vibrant coriander-and-salt-seasoned beef dancing across your tongue at first bite. You can order it in a sandwich on rye, but I prefer to eat it straight from the butcher paper.
The deli’s homemade corned beef and salami, as well as freshly made salads, bagel dogs and kugels (available for takeaway or served alongside monstrous sandwiches on the stellar lunch menu) are also delicious. In addition to classic deli dishes — Chef Jon Rubin continues to use Mrs. Kohn’s original recipes — they’ve introduced generously portioned, often themed, takeaway meals every Wednesday. From Comfort Food Night with rich Guinness stew and mashed potatoes, to World Cup Night with burgers, French fries and chili, the Wednesday takeout menu keeps customers on their toes, and eager for more.
This isn’t the only way Kohn’s has adapted to changing times in order to stay in business. The deli has expanded its online presence, so anyone in the United States can order kosher-certified meat from the butcher, and locals can order pick-up from the deli. The most drastic change, however, has been in ownership.
Bobbi and Simon Kohn’s children ran the deli since the 1970s, but with no one to hand the family business to, they decided to put it up for sale in March 2022. That’s where devout customer AJ Moll stepped in. A third- generation St. Louisian with 30 years of experience in dining, foodservice and catering, Moll is the perfect fit. He’s dedicated to maintaining Kohn’s friendly, family-centric atmosphere that keeps people coming back, and the 5-star service he received as a customer.
While Moll wants to preserve Kohn’s traditions, including Mrs. Kohn’s original recipes, he has big plans for the future. First up: bringing the deli into the 21st century and catering to the busy, modern-day, working family by increasing grab-and-go foods, like premade dinners and pre-sliced deli meats. Moll also wants to expand business hours to make the deli more accessible.
There are very few places that evoke emotion in me. Standing in Kohn’s that Sunday morning, tears came to my eyes. Kohn’s is not a typical chain grocery store or restaurant. It is a place where I wanted to spend my day sitting at a worn table, watching the workers and customers move in a beautiful dance. I fantasized about bringing my family here, about all the memories to be made, eating and laughing. I felt at home in Kohn’s, and I know my experience is not unique. Kohn’s unites the community and is the embodiment of the Jewish spirit.