Monday, March 7, 2016

Rabbis with blowtorches: The business of kosher restaurants Hashgacha jobs in demand looks into the expanding Kosher restaurant market and the Mashgiach that comes along with it. Article in Crains NY buisness by Aaron Elstein.
Craines- NY:  At the crack of dawn one recent morning, a group of truckers stopped at Le Marais on West 46th Street to drop off the day’s supplies: 300 pounds of beef, 850 pounds of potatoes, 30 pounds of mesclun.“Where’s the guy in charge?” a deliveryman said, anxious to start unloading. A moment later, Rabbi Avrohom Keller strolled in. Keller isn’t the owner of Le Marais, nor is he the chef. Strictly speaking, he isn’t even employed by the popular steakhouse. But he is unquestionably in charge.

Keller is a professional mashgiach. His job is to make sure that all the food brought into and prepared at Le Marais is kosher. It’s a crucial position, considering that in a city saturated with 80 pricey steakhouses, Le Marais owner Jose Meirelles and executive chef Mark Hennessey (both Catholics) have built a $7 million business by creating a restaurant where observant Jews can loosen their ties and devour dry-aged prime rib or tournedos with a dairy-free bearnaise sauce. The 21-year-old institution, probably New York’s top-grossing kosher restaurant, is revered by a certain subset of foodies for helping lay to rest the notion that eating in a kosher restaurant means settling for inferior food.

Keller became Le Marais’ chief mashgiach (Hebrew for supervisor and pronounced “mahsh-ghee-ach”) about a decade ago after the restaurant filed a defamation suit against his predecessor, who accused the eatery of breaking kosher rules. Le Marais prevailed in court, but business sank by 30% after the former supervisor used social media to encourage people to boycott the place.

Keller operates in a less heavy-handed manner but leaves no doubt on where he stands. “As long as the staff follows the rules, things run smoothly.” Those rules are based on thousands of years’ worth of rabbinic interpretations of the handful of lines in the Torah that form the basis of kashrut, the laws of kosher food.

Keller began this particular morning by opening one of the delivery boxes and confirming that the ground ginger and black pepper inside were certified kosher. He signed an invoice, headed to the kitchen downstairs and began opening the refrigerators that are padlocked at closing to ensure that no one inadvertently ruins the kitchen’s kosher status by cooking noncertified ingredients on the stove or using the wrong utensil.

Kosher Commandments
The laws governing kosher food can be complex: A primer on the Orthodox Union’s website takes 3,719 words. The basics can be summarized as follows.
To be kosher, animals must have cloven hooves and chew their cud. Fish must have scales and fins.
Animals must be slaughtered using an ultra-sharp knife so they die instantly. Their organs must then be inspected for abnormalities, and all the blood drained out. The meat must be soaked in cold water and salted.
Meat cannot be eaten with dairy.
Utensils for preparing or eating meat dishes cannot be used, or come into contact, with those used for dairy dishes.
Wine and other grape products must be prepared by Jews or boiled.
Source: Orthodox Union
Keller then picked up a wrench and twisted a knob to turn on the gas stove. He got on his hands and knees and, using a rolled-up receipt that he’d set aflame, lit the ovens. He does this every day because observant Jews require that their meals be “prepared” by another Jew, which can be accomplished legalistically by having one turn on the gas.

Keller next examined the salmon and tuna to make sure they had the scales and fins necessary to prove they were kosher, unlike seafood such as shark or scallops. He’d examine the day’s meat shipment later—it wouldn’t take long to see if anything was awry there. “Pretty frequently someone makes a mistake and sends us the wrong thing,” he said. “Very rarely they send us dairy, which we send back.” The laws of kashrut prohibit the mixing of meat and dairy products, and kosher restaurants serve one or the other but never both.

Keller began inspecting the day’s produce. Although vegetables are an afterthought with most steakhouse customers, this is the most time-­consuming of his many tasks. It can take nearly half of his nine-hour shift to ensure that Le Marais’ fruits and vegetables are free of bugs (virtually all insects are traif—i.e., nonkosher). Keller sliced the stems off a package of strawberries, rinsed them several times and drained the fruit through a silk screen. He then placed the silk on a lighted backdrop and took a long, hard look. He repeated the process for several bunches of scallions. Good news: No bugs. He gave the kitchen staff tasked with preparing the day’s meals the word they’d been waiting for. “OK,” he said, nodding to the staff. “You can start now.”

Keller, 44, hails from Crown Heights and studied at Oholei Torah, a seminary founded at the behest of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the late chief of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a Jewish-outreach organization with 4,000 emissaries on college campuses and in cities across the world. Keller is one of about 1,000 kosher-kitchen supervisors in the city.

They can be found anywhere kosher food is prepared outside a home: hotels, supermarkets, catering companies, bakeries, hospitals, even schools. Job opportunities are growing—along with the number of organizations offering kosher certification—because more people are keeping kosher, and kosher-keepers are eating out more.

Buck Ennis Rabbi Avrohom Kelle kashrut monitor at Le Marais, checks scallions for the presence of insects.
Of the metro area’s 694,000 Jewish households, 32% kept kosher in 2011, up from 28% in 2002, according to a study by the UJA-Federation of New York. A 2013 Pew Research study found that Jews younger than 50 were nearly twice as likely to keep kosher as older ones, in no small part because the Orthodox Jewish population is increasing faster than the secular one.

The number of kosher restaurants in the city has increased by at least 50% during the past two decades, according to Elan Kornblum, publisher of the magazine Great Kosher Restaurants. Today, there are nearly 300 kosher restaurants in New York, according to the city’s Department of Health. That number sounds modest in a metropolis of more than 20,000 eateries, but is quite close to New York’s 316 French restaurants and 304 Indian ones. (For the record, city inspectors count 5,523 “American” restaurants; 2,134 Chinese; 1,183 pizzerias; 998 Italian; 717 Japanese; 348 “Asian”; 272 Thai; 119 Greek; 82 Russian; 35 Armenian; 3 Chilean; 3 Czech; and 2 Polynesian. There are also 148 fried-chicken joints.)

“For people who keep kosher, it has never been better,” said Sidney Cohen, who with his wife, Tammy, owns a 70-seat restaurant on East 81st Street called Eighteen. “Anything you want kosher you can usually get. It certainly didn’t used to be that way.”

The person most responsible for that is Rabbi Menachem Genack, the most powerful person in the kosher food world—certainly in New York, most likely in the U.S. and possibly in the world.

Genack, 68, is CEO of the kosher certification service of the Orthodox Union, better known as the OU. The Manhattan-based nonprofit pioneered the modern kosher certification process in the 1920s. Its first big client was Heinz vegetarian beans. (A close scan of many popular packaged goods reveals the group’s symbol, a circle with the letter “U” inside. A “D” next to it indicates dairy ingredients.)

“Many of the men and women in our factories had to learn the hard way that the real boss in the plant was not always the superintendent, but frequently was the man with the little skullcap who would brook no interference with the furtherance of his instructions,” said Fred Heinz, a company vice president, in a 1956 speech to the OU. “The fact that I am here today indicates how well we’ve learned to cooperate with each other.”

Kosher products were still a backwater of the food business when Genack took the helm in 1980, at which time the OU inspected about 400 food-­production facilities. Today, a full-time staff of 60 rabbis and hundreds more part-time field representatives inspect 9,000 production facilities from Teaneck to Tibet that manufacture 900,000 food products or ingredients. Additions in the past few years include Glenmorangie scotch and Tootsie Roll candies.

“It’s a safety check,” Joe Perez, a senior vice president at Goya Foods, said of the kosher label. “A large part of the population, Jewish or non-Jewish, looks at it as a seal of quality and cleanliness.”

“For people who keep kosher, it has never been better. Anything you want kosher you can usually get."
For a long time, the Orthodox rabbinate’s hold on the certification business was backed by an 1882 state law that said any food advertised in the state as kosher had to be processed according to Orthodox religious requirements. The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets even employed a team of kosher-food inspectors who had the power to fine violators or refer them to prosecutors.

But in 1996, two Long Island butchers sued, arguing the law showed an “impermissible partiality for the Orthodox tradition.” A federal judge agreed. The law was rewritten in 2004 to strip state inspectors of much of their authority, and a few years later most were let go during the budget crunch caused by the financial crisis. The state’s kosher law-enforcement division today is a one-person office.

That change helped pave the way for growth in the certification business for restaurants (which tend to be dominated in each city by a local group of rabbis) and the far bigger manufacturing market. The Association of Kashrus Organizations lists more than 70 U.S. members. There are hundreds more certification authorities that aren’t part of the association.

Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University who’s written a book about the certification authorities, estimates that five organizations control 80% of the business, with the OU dominating the field. As a religious institution, the organization isn’t required to publicly disclose its finances as other nonprofits must, but it likely generates about $80 million in revenue annually, based on public filings from a competitor and calculations by Lytton. Only about 10% of that comes from restaurant certification, for which it typically charges $1,300 a month.

Le Marais, one of only about 30 restaurants it certifies locally, chooses the OU’s stamp of approval over a competitor’s because its certification is so well known and accepted. “It’s important we have their logo on our window,” said Meirelles.

Before inspecting kitchens, OU rabbis interview restaurateurs to make sure they will take kosher laws seriously. The skepticism is warranted: Running a restaurant in New York is hard; running a kosher one is especially complicated. Spend enough time with owners of kosher restaurants and you’ll hear quite a lot of complaints about the hassles of keeping the place kosher, ranging from the expected (e.g., the insensitivity of supervisors to business concerns) to the inevitable (e.g., suspicions that some certification groups are more interested in extracting fees than enforcing Torah law).

The gauntlet of challenges starts with the inconvenient fact that many kosher restaurants are closed about 90 nights a year, including all Fridays and many Saturdays (when the Sabbath-ending sunset comes at an impractically late hour), as well as Passover and several other holidays.

Moreover, owners typically pay about $15,000 annually to an organization or group of rabbis who certify their place as kosher. That’s in addition to the salaries of rabbi-approved kitchen supervisors like Keller who make sure the numerous laws governing kosher food are rigorously observed at all times.

Prices of nonkosher beef have been falling in recent months after rising steadily for several years. But the cost of kosher meat, typically twice as much, has remained high. There is so little high-quality kosher beef available that many restaurants rely heavily on a single supplier, Queens-based Alle Processing. When the company recently raised the price of hanger steak to $18 a pound from $11, some eateries took the item off the menu. (Alle didn’t respond to a request for comment.) To help lower food costs, Sidney Cohen of Eighteen has started buying produce from wholesaler Restaurant Depot and avoiding middlemen. “You pick exactly what you want, and they deliver,” he said.

Le Marais executive chef Mark Hennessey (left) and owner Jose Meirelles say getting along with the mashgiach is of utmost importance.
Then there is the shorter week. Le Marais is open only about 270 nights a year; Smith & Wollensky is open 365. So even though the two restaurants both serve about 700 people per day, Le Marais’ annual revenue is less than a third of Smith & Wollensky’s $26 million, according to the trade journal Restaurant Business.

Another reason for the  revenue gap is wine. It typically makes up 40% of steakhouse sales but only 25% at Le Marais, which charges less for wine. “Kosher wines have certainly gotten better, but you can’t charge a lot for most of them,” Hennessey said. Le Marais clients also drink less of it than customers at similar but nonkosher restaurants, he said. Asked why, Meirelles, who before opening Le Marais was chef at Brasserie Les Halles on Park Avenue, shrugged. “It’s cultural,” he said.

Among the biggest costs for kosher restaurants are the kitchen supervisors. Wages for the mashgiachs, paid by the restaurants, begin at $18 an hour. That means at least an extra $100,000 a year in labor costs for the two supervisors whom most restaurants need. It’s a hefty price, considering restaurant profits are measured in pennies on the dollar. A large part of Hennessey’s job is getting along with Keller, even if it’s irritating when the rabbi turns up late and delays everyone from starting their work. “If there’s an issue, he’ll let us know and we’ll say ‘OK, understood,’” Hennessey said.

Not all restaurateurs can put up with the OU’s strictures. Ephraim “Effy” Nagar, owner of Talia’s on Amsterdam Avenue near West 93rd Street, had been certified by the OU but took his business elsewhere after a dispute over mixing wine and music.

On a recent evening, his place was packed with the secular and the devout, including a table with diners wearing the black-and-white garb of the Satmars, the city’s largest Hasidic community. The crowd was enjoying lamb shanks and wine as a guitarist in the corner played Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” and Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” (Talia’s progressive approach to the business is also reflected in its being open on the Sabbath. It manages that by requiring reservations and payment for prix fixe dinners in advance of sundown Friday night, eliminating the need for money to change hands.)

Talia’s combination of wine and live music displeased the OU, which in 2009 told Nagar to stop it or his certification would be revoked. The OU rabbis contended that serving wine while live music is performed—except during occasions such as weddings and bar mitzvahs—dishonors the memory of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman Empire. Nagar said he dropped the OU and turned to an Upper West Side organization called Mehadrin Kashrus to certify his restaurant.

“You tell me I cannot have music and wine and dancing because of memories of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem?” said Nagar. “It’s out­moded. We don’t believe in certain restrictions that according to some are applicable in 2016. It’s not the OU who decides. It’s God.”

Genack defended his minions. He noted that an estimated one-third of the Jewish population died in the period after the Temple’s destruction in A.D. 70. “It was equivalent to the Holocaust,” he said. “If we hadn’t gone through all those historical catastrophes, there would be as many Jews in the world as Chinese.”

Even non-Jewish diners view kosher certification as a mark of quality and cleanliness.

Simply opening a kosher restaurant requires all sorts of additional steps that cost time and money. In 2013, an Israeli restaurateur named Eyal Tov opened a place on Rivington Street to give Lower East Siders another option for a quick bite.

Business was good at the Falafel Shop, where the $6.75 namesake sandwich features excellent hummus and tahini, tangy pickles and a side of bracing hot sauce. But Tov soon realized that the neighborhood that once was the epicenter of New York’s Jewish community no longer had any kosher restaurants. (The nearby Katz’s Delicatessen is “kosher style”—i.e., under no supervision and not claiming to be truly kosher.)

The 34-year-old restaurateur saw an opportunity to help his little place stand out. In January he got the Falafel Shop certified by Brooklyn-based OK Kosher Certification, probably the OU’s biggest competitor and a rising player among health- and ­alternative-food producers.

Tov’s was an easier conversion than most because the restaurant doesn’t serve meat, but the process was nonetheless far from easy. He had to close for a week as a crew sanitized cooking equipment and surfaces with blowtorches and immersed utensils in a ritual bath whose pool had to be connected directly to a natural well or consist of collected rainwater. He also went through a couple of kitchen supervisors before finding one he felt he could work with. Worst of all, going kosher meant sacrificing Friday-night crowds.

But Tov has no regrets. “Ask me again in a few months, but I like the way things have started,” he said. Traffic rose by 20% after the change, without any advertising.

Indeed, word travels quickly when a kosher restaurant opens. The Facebook group Great Kosher Restaurant Foodies has nearly 19,000 members swapping news, reviews and food photos. That’s helpful because most kosher restaurants can’t afford to advertise because their operating costs are so high.

“Our marketing budget goes to pay for meat, having a sign on our door saying we are certified by OK, and the mashgiach,” said Tammy Cohen, the owner of Eighteen. She remembers eating at Schmulka Bernstein’s, a much-missed Lower East Side kosher-Chinese emporium, and traces the birth of modern kosher restaurants to 1993, when Medici 56 opened in midtown.

For all the headaches and headwinds, more kosher restaurants are on the way. Kornblum, the magazine publisher, says his biweekly newsletter regularly features two or three new ones.

Steven Traube, former operations chief at Prime Grill, a high-end kosher restaurant in midtown, is preparing to launch the Wall Street Grill, an upscale place with outdoor seating.  “Kosher customers used to be forced to accept what was out there,” he said. “Nowadays, they appreciate great quality products in a nice restaurant with good service and no price-gouging for inferior product. The market has shown that you can’t fool discerning customers for too long.”

Le Marais, the grande dame of high-end kosher, still packs in the crowds. On a recent Thursday—the busiest night of the week—people savored steaks and frites. No one seemed to miss the clarified butter that steakhouses typically use to finish their entrées, and it was easy to overlook that the food was kosher.

A big part of keeping kosher, however, is that it forces people to think about what they eat. So is it a good thing that kosher-keepers can go to a restaurant and enjoy themselves as anyone else would? Rabbi Moshe Krupka, executive vice president at Touro College and a former OU official, worries about that. “Are these restaurants the trophy, the thing that epitomizes the arrival of observant Jews into society?” he asked. “I hope not. But I enjoy a good restaurant.”

1 comment:

  1. What I am about to say might be completely wrong, but I suspect that on the Great Day of Judgment [Yom HaDin], the Heavenly Court will show that Jews spent hundreds of millions of dollars each year on kosher cruises and eating in very expensive kosher restaurants (which those in Manhattan being the most expensive of all.)
    Next, Heavenly Court will ask Jews why yeshivot were constantly in debt, and why kiruv rechokim was ridiculously underfunded in comparison to the need, and why pro-Israel activist organizations were also underfunded in comparison to the need.
    What I am about to say might be completely wrong, but I suspect that on the Great Day of Judgment [Yom HaDin], the Heavenly Court will ask Jews why they spent many hundreds of millions of dollars more-than-necessary on engagement parties, vort ceremonies, and super-expensive weddings – millions of dollars that would have been more wisely spent on helping poor Jews in various ways.

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