The Kosher King of Detroit

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Everywhere he goes, people want to talk to Brian Jacobs about pizza. Like when he picks up his daughters from school or when he’s at the mall, even when he’s at synagogue. They chat about new topping combinations and suggest new kinds of crusts.

“Anywhere I’m at, we talk about pizza,” he says — not that he’s complaining, given his day job. The 38-year-old Oak Park native owns and runs Jerusalem Pizza, with locations in West Bloomfield and Southfield, and recently opened his third eatery, Jerusalem Sub, in the same strip center as his Southfield store. And each of his pizza restaurants houses an additional business, Coffee at the J in West Bloomfield and Jerusalem Bagel in Southfield.

With less than a dozen kosher-certified eateries in Metro Detroit (nine by our count), Jacobs’ newly opened sub shop, which is also his first fleishig (meat) restaurant, means he now controls more than 50 percent of the local kosher dining market.

It’s a swanky concept for someone who has been working steadily since age 10, when he cut lawns for the neighbors. By the time he was of bar mitzvah age, he started delivering newspapers with his father, coming home right after school and waking up early Sunday mornings to make sure they got delivered on time.

With a larger-than-life personality and physical characteristics to match, Jacobs could have been a stand-up comic. Possessing a wit reminiscent of the late Sam Kinison and the dry delivery of Steven Wright, he is never at a loss for words. But then again, he can’t be. Not when he’s constantly taking orders or shmoozing customers or talking to his employees at the various shops — courtesy of his trademark Bluetooth headset.

Usually decked out in his Jerusalem gear — a blue polo shirt adorned with his franchise’s logo, khaki pants and sneakers — he starts his day by getting his three daughters, ages 8, 6 and 3, up and ready for school. He grabs a coffee and heads to the Southfield store. His operation can’t start until he arrives — literally.

For Jacobs is like that guard in the windowless room of Coca-Cola, where the secret to the beverage giant’s success lies: He is the bulkhead between Jerusalem Pizza’s trademark taste and his 28 employees, being solely responsible for making sure there’s dough every day for the pizzas.

“I’m the only one who makes the dough mix for both stores; the pizza recipe is the sacred part,” he says. “I give them a bag of all the spices and ingredients; I’m the only one who knows the recipe.”

Well, almost the only one. He used to watch the store’s founding owner make the mix when he was an employee there. “I remember when he used to make it,” he recalled. “He’d be in the back of the store with his measuring cups and his ingredients on the table, and I wasn’t allowed to be back there. I said, ‘What am I going to do, steal your recipe?’”

After the day’s dough has been made, Jacobs goes back and forth between stores, making sure everything is humming. In between, he’ll be on the Bluetooth, in contact with vendors and suppliers and, of course, anyone else who can muscle his way in between calls.

IN ILITCH’S FOOTSTEPS?

It’s an auspicious life for the titular “Kosher King of Detroit,” whose pizza career ostensibly began at age 15 courtesy of another local pizza magnate, Mike Ilitch, and the Little Caesars at Evergreen Plaza in Southfield. Jacobs worked there for four years before he became a manager and left at the end of his sixth year to take on other gigs.

He also worked for a meat distributor, sold candy at party stores and gas stations, and worked at a barbecue joint on Orchard Lake Road before he got back into the business.

The year was 1996, and Aryeh Sharon, founder of the Jerusalem franchise (back when it was just that single pizza shop), asked Jacobs to bring his experience in the pizza industry to work at the newly opened establishment.

“It’s the same setup, the same equipment, the same machines so it was just like moving right in,” Jacobs recalls.

Sharon’s former wife, Soril, who opened the business with her then-husband, remembers Jacobs coming on board only a few months after “JP,” as it’s known in the ’hood, opened its doors.

“When Brian started working for me, he had a ponytail; he was this 22-year-old hippie,” she said. “The day I knew Brian started to mature was the day he walked into the store and he had a haircut.”

Soril Sharon, who continues to be active in the business, added that Jacobs has come a long way over the 14 years she has known him. “Brian has his business dreams and is well on his way to realizing them,” she said. “He works very hard.”

As for the haircut, he says everyone always hated that ponytail, including his mother, and claims he was given $100 for getting it cut.

Hairstyles aside, it’s hard to find someone who would call Jacob’s work ethic into question. While not braggadocios, he takes pride in claiming that he has rarely missed a day on the job, calling in sick only twice (that he can recall) — and never being a “no-show” despite many nights when he stayed out a little too late.

For whatever really drives his motivation, the man who says he hasn’t had a day off since last October (when Jerusalem Pizza decided to open Saturday nights), says he always wanted to have money. “I always wanted to be independent, buy stuff if I wanted it, never have to ask my mother for money,” he says.

Ultimately, the free spirit grew up. And, as often happens, the process of growing up includes falling in love. Like so many other slices of his life, his romance was pizza-related. He met his now wife, Rivka, when the two worked together at JP. And, even though he says they knew each other from attending the same synagogue growing up, it was the close confines of work that made the attraction grow. “One thing led to another, and we started dating,” he says.

Married nearly eight years, and three daughters later, the two are like tag-team partners in their expanding empire of kosher cuisine. If he’s not at the flagship store in Southfield, she usually is. Not that they do it alone. His employees are, by and large, an extended family and Jacob’s acknowledged lifeline in the lofty goal of opening multiple stores.

LAUNCHING THE SUB

“I have a good crew in the Southfield store and in West Bloomfield; as time goes on, they’re getting better — so now I’m able to focus on new things,” he says. Those “things” include his latest endeavor, Jerusalem Sub, which opened earlier this year and is reminiscent of a particular sandwich shop he ate in before keeping kosher.

“When I was 18, I wanted to open a Subway,” he says, adding that the dream of running a sub shop ran into the reality of capital financing, or lack thereof, so it didn’t happen — then. Now, his sub shop is just three doors down from his pizza store in Southfield, and he is fielding jokes about having to change his shirt or apron to go between the meat and dairy stores.

Not that you have to be frum (religious) to enjoy the food. Jacobs said he gets lots of feedback from customers thrilled at the prospect of being able to take non-kosher colleagues somewhere they’ll want to return.

“When people come in, I don’t tell them when they order a pepperoni pizza that they’re ordering vegetarian pepperoni,” he says. “When they come back the next day, they say, ‘That was good; I’d like to have it again.’ [And] I’ll tell them it wasn’t real pepperoni, it wasn’t real Italian sausage you ate; a lot of times they don’t believe me.”

On his ascension in the restaurant business, he laughs, especially when thinking about those employees who remind him of himself when he started, saying he tries to give them tips for staying out of trouble. He recognizes it is a tougher world now than when he moved through the ranks to get a job without a college degree and hopes to pass on the kind of good fortune he has had in his employment.

“I hope one day they can be as fortunate as I was to take over an existing business and be able to raise a family, to make a good living and enjoy their job,” he said. “I got pretty lucky.”

As for the future, he says there are lots of ideas percolating. “Our plan is to open up more restaurants in Southfield, in the same area where Jerusalem Pizza is now,” he said. “We want to expand the Jerusalem family.”

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