Brownstein: Plane crash brings back harrowing memories to Lester’s Deli boss

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Given the pandemic and recent events, Billy Berenholc does not plan to roll out the balloons and breasts for Lester’s Deli’s 70th anniversary.

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It was a little over 15 years ago, but Billy Berenholc remembers the episode like it was yesterday.

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Berenholc, owner of the legendary Lester’s Deli in Outremont, was at the controls of a single-engine Cessna 172, accompanied by his then 10-year-old son Sammy and aircraft owner Gian Piero Ciambella. They were doing an aerial tour of the city. Suddenly the engine began to roar before stalling.

“There was water in the gas tank, which ended up in the carburetor,” Berenholc still remembers vividly. “It was an abnormal incident.”

But there was no way out. They should make an emergency landing. Ciambella then took control of the plane.

“I really thought I saw a sign saying ‘Parc Avion’, but it was Parc Ave. Says Berenholc. “But it wasn’t a question of laughing. My mind was racing. My son was on board. I kept asking myself, ‘Why did I bring my son with me this time?’

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“We had no choice but the land. It was either turning right onto Avenue du Parc, or turning left into office towers. It was a mind-blowing experience. It was also the tam-tam Sunday on the mountain. Everything seemed to have taken hours to unfold, but, in fact, it only took 10 minutes. “

They were lucky and landed safely, and there were no injuries. Berenholc insists that “divine intervention” was at stake.

A Cessna flown by pilot Gian Piero Ciambella, center, sits on Parc Avenue on September 10, 2006, after an engine failure forced it to land in the street.  Customer Bill Berenholc, right, and his 10-year-old son Sammy, left, were passengers.
A Cessna flown by pilot Gian Piero Ciambella, center, sits on Parc Avenue on September 10, 2006, after an engine failure forced it to land in the street. Client Bill Berenholc, right, and his 10-year-old son Sammy, left, were passengers. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette files

Unfortunately, divine intervention did not happen again last Saturday night when the same pilot of the same Cessna – who was towing a marriage proposal banner – crashed and then burned in Dieppe Park near the Concorde Bridge. The only passenger on board died, while pilot Ciambella escaped alive but was seriously injured and hospitalized.

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“It really touched me when I heard about the crash,” Berenholc said. “I don’t know what would have happened if (Ciambella) hadn’t been there and taken control of our flight. The alternative to a safe landing is never a good thing. But he stayed so calm as he landed the plane. He didn’t panic at all. He also kept us calm. You could tell he was an expert aviator.

Berenholc never piloted again after his experience. But he has kept in touch with Ciambella over the years and has left her messages of recovery ever since.

“The last time we spoke was September 10, the anniversary of our landing on Park Avenue,” Berenholc said. “We always talked on birthdays, to remind ourselves how lucky we were. It was such a fluke that we all did well. Unfortunately, that was not the case last Saturday.

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Without that fluke or divine intervention, Berenholc notes that Lester’s Deli might not have reached its 70th birthday in November.

All signage at Lester's Deli is hand painted.
All signage at Lester’s Deli is hand painted. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Lester’s Deli – not to be confused with supermarket deli supplier Lester – was started in 1951. Berenholc’s father, Eddy, had worked for the original owner before purchasing the deli in 1956. Berenholc a took over the business 10 years before his father’s death. He has since created the Lester’s Deli Express kiosks in the US terminal at Trudeau International Airport and Laurentian Lanes on Montée de Liesse.

Even though this goes against all conventional cardiovascular and dietary logic, the city’s local deli scene continues to thrive like few others are able to. As some of the city’s restaurateurs turn 10, the deli storefront features a surprising number of alumni: Zytynsky 100 hits next year; Schwartz turns 93 in December; and Snowdon Deli just celebrated its 75th anniversary. Not to mention the famous hot dogs at the Montreal Pool Room, which is about to celebrate its 110th anniversary next year.

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But given the pandemic and recent events, Berenholc does not plan to deploy the balloons and breasts for the 70th.

“Right now I’m so grateful to our core staff who have remained intact and have helped us through much of the past two years,” he says. “We had to significantly shift our business to take-out during the pandemic. If I am celebrating something, I am celebrating my staff, otherwise it would have been a nightmare.

Lunchtime at Lester's Deli can be a busy place.  Jack Cooperstone, 85, on his cell phone, has been going there for over 60 years.
Lunchtime at Lester’s Deli can be a busy place. Jack Cooperstone, 85, on his cell phone, has been going there for over 60 years. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Before the pandemic, Lester’s Deli could seat 43 guests inside. Now it’s half that amount, but takeout more than made up for the losses.

“A lot of our regular customers still feel uncomfortable sitting in a restaurant,” he says.

Berenholc, 64, who has worked in the grocery store since the age of 16, has identified with it so much that customers call him Billy Lester. Some call him “Bernard’s mayor” – because he seems to know everyone in the neighborhood, from the matrons of Outremont to the shmata vendors to the city’s sports, cultural, business and political figures. In a street famous for its fancy restaurants, Lester’s is anything but, which is perfect for its clientele and its owner.

Most regulars think Berenholc is as appealing as his famous Cadillac creation, a mid-fat smoked meat sandwich that devotees call “legal crack”. He’s a character and more, always ready with a story to tell. He’s there from 7 a.m., six days a week, and can sometimes be found at closing time at 8 p.m., still chatting with customers.

“The key has been to keep it simple,” says Berenholc. “That’s all.”

Nicholas Charos, Lester’s manager, doesn’t quite agree:

“What makes Lester’s, Lester’s?” No doubt, that’s all Billy.

[email protected]

twitter.com/billbrownstein

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