UPPER WEST SIDE — An elderly man in a white coat shuffles back and forth behind a long counter, bundling packets of meat as he has been for more than a decade.
Ernie Fleischman, 93, claims to be the oldest kosher butcher in New York City — fitting for the man who spends three days a week working at the city's oldest kosher butcher shop, Fischer Bros. & Leslie.
After owning a butcher shop in The Bronx and retiring, Fleischman, who has 17 grandchildren and 50 great-grandchildren, decided to get back into the business and has been a fixture at the Fischer Bros. since 2000.
Fleischman is just one symbol of the West 72nd Street store's insistence on tradition — a strategy the owners believe has helped keep them in business for more than six decades.
"There’s a certain steadiness about it, no different from Barney Greengrass...There’s an element of reliability," said a recent customer, who declined to share his name.
For the most part, the store, which will celebrate its 65th anniversary this August, has balked at adapting to new technologies, preferring phone orders.
"Our reputation has been built upon personalized service which cannot be incorporated into a
web based order form," the site reads. "There are many details in properly preparing your meat order that can only be achieved by direct communication with you, our customer."
Thousands of clients still have house accounts, ordering weekly or daily by phone and then receiving an invoice at the end of the month.
"You find that people are creatures of habit," said co-owner Paul Whitman, the son-in-law of Leslie Niederman, who started the store with brothers Morris and Louis Fischer.
"What owners perceive as market-rate [rent], I don't think is compatible with most businesses' survival," Whitman said.
Given the butcher shop's many decades of operation, the owners are able to get the freshest meat because of strong relationships with purveyors, who save the best selections for them, he said.
In an era of prepackaged food, fresh meat cut to a customer's instructions and a bevy of homemade dishes, like chicken soup and latkes, stand out, Whitman explained.
"There aren't that many service butchers anymore," he said.
At any time, the store has about five butchers working behind the counter, many of whom were trained on site and worked their way up from delivery positions.
These butchers "know everybody," said a customer, who said the store's personable atmosphere is something people love.
For Whitman, the full-service aspect of the store means he's often running around "putting out fires," such as when a customer phones in a last-minute order or another forgets his weekly order.
But the desire to serve is what drives him. "You want them to be happy," he said.