The restaurant business is a tough one. It’s even tougher for establishments whose target consumer base makes up just a small fraction of a city’s total population. So it’s no surprise that in Seattle, the options for kosher dining are limited.
Al Maimon, interim director of the Va’ad HaRabanim of Greater Seattle, the organization responsible for kosher supervision and certification of local-area restaurants, was candid about Seattle’s culinary shortcomings during a recent discussion with JTNews.
“Anecdotally, kosher restaurants are sort of scarce,” Maimon said.
Currently, Seattle is home to just five kosher restaurants, three bagel shops, a Krispy Kreme Donuts and a handful of grocery stores that carry wide selections of kosher products. Maimon was quick to point out that Seattle is not alone in its lack of kosher offerings, however.
“Other towns like Denver, St. Louis, or Vancouver, all with Jewish communities roughly same size [as Seattle], have similar difficulties sustaining kosher establishments,” he said.
Despite its limited options, Seattle has seen a lot of upheaval in its kosher food establishments in 2008.
In the past several months, two area kosher eateries, Kafé Kineret and Leah’s Bakery and Café, have shut their doors, with the closure of Leah’s coming on the heels of new Va’ad policies aimed at fruits and vegetables. At the same time, local grocery stores have been scrambling to keep the supply of kosher meats available and affordable in the wake of May’s high-profile immigration raids on the Agriprocessors meat packaging plant in Postville, Iowa.
But the news isn’t all bad for Seattle’s kosher consumers. The PCC in the View Ridge neighborhood has begun kosher labeling of their bulk foods with the help of the Va’ad (a service already offered at PCC’s Seward Park store), and Maggie Moo’s ice cream parlor on Mercer Island reopened last month with the intention of getting re-certified in the near future.
A matter of space
Kafé Kineret opened inside of the Stroum Jewish Community Center in late 2004, immediately filling a niche as the only kosher restaurant in the greater Seattle area with an emphasis on “Jewish food.”
Owned by husband and wife Yechiel and Miri Cohen, the café specialized in falafels, deli-style sandwiches and salads.
However, according to Matt Grogan, associate director of the Stroum JCC, the Cohens struggled with the JCC’s insistence that the café maintain kosher certification, among other things. Ultimately, the decision was made that the JCC was not the best place for Kafé Kineret, which shut down last month. The JCC still maintains a kosher kitchen that can be used for events.
“It was a mutual decision, but more so from our standpoint,” Grogan said about the café‘s closing. The Cohens could not be reached for comment.
According to Grogan, the timing of the café‘s closure was prompted by the JCC’s need for more space.
Grogan did say that he is currently looking for another food service vendor to operate within the JCC. His vision is a coffee-cart sized enterprise that could fit in the corner of the room where a showcase for the JCC’s capital campaign will be located.
Baking as a community service
In February, Leah’s Bakery and Café, the only kosher retail bakery in Seattle, closed its doors. Leah’s had been providing the local community with freshly prepared challahs, knishes and kugels, as well as making sandwiches and soups, for 10 years. Owner Leah Jaffee sited chronic financial concerns as the primary reason for the bakery’s closure.
“We liked making those things, but it was sort of a community service, as far as profit margins went,” Jaffee said.
The bakery had always been a money-loser, according to Jaffee. But she said that the additional costs associated with new policies recently adopted by the Va’ad concerning fruits and vegetables pushed the enterprise beyond financial feasibility.
“I just couldn’t justify having someone come in and wash one head of lettuce for $20 if I was only making six box lunches,” Jaffee said. “That’s more than $3 per sandwich just for your lettuce.”
In the last year and a half, the Seattle Va’ad has been sorting out a new set of regulations for restaurants under its supervision — concerning the way fruits and vegetables are washed and inspected — to prevent the accidental consumption of insects by customers. Maimon sited pesticide regulations as well as the more recent trend toward organic produce as the impetus for the new regulation.
“It’s something you don’t usually pay attention to in Western society because [insects] aren’t items people are going to order off the menu,” Maimon said. “However, that restriction applies whether you want to eat them or not.”
More Biblical attention is paid to prohibition against eating insects than almost any other aspect of kashrut, but during the past few decades, with the prevalence of pesticide use, this concern had fallen by the wayside with regard to kosher supervision.
Maimon stressed that the new policies are still being firmed up, but a document sent to restaurants in December 2007 breaks produce into four categories, requiring varying degrees of attention. The category containing most green vegetables requires that samples from each batch be washed and examined by a Va’ad mashgiach.
Jaffee claimed she was paying $20 per hour for this service. The Va’ad also recommends that certain produce items such as whole raspberries and blackberries not be used at all, which would have required Jaffee to change a number of her recipes.
“All my berry muffins, berry tarts and berry pies, I couldn’t use them any more,” she said.
Jaffee also runs a kosher catering service called Leah’s Catering. She noted that the cost of Va’ad supervision, even with the new vegetable and fruit policies in affect, is much more manageable for that aspect of her business, where the mashgiach only comes in when she has a specific job, rather than on an almost daily basis.
Maimon acknowledged that the cost of kosher supervision can be a hurdle for restaurants interested in certification, but he was quick to point out that the Va’ad is enthusiastic about the prospect of bringing more kosher restaurants to Seattle, and helping existing restaurants stay afloat whenever they can.
“I think there is a perception that the Va’ad is more of an obstacle than an enabler,” Maimon said. “Obviously that’s not our intention. We want to increase choice and availability for the kosher consumer.”
The meat of the matter
Prior to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s May 12 raid of the Agriprocessors meat packing plant in Postville, which was allegedly found to be employing more than 300 undocumented workers for far below minimum wage, Agriprocessors was responsible for producing approximately 70 percent of the kosher meat sold in the United States. The result of the raid has left many stores that carry kosher meats scrambling to meet the demand for those products.
John Gillespie, store manager for the Albertson’s on Mercer Island, said that his store previously received almost all of its kosher meats from Agriprocessors, but, since May, that number has dropped to just over 30 percent. In place of Agriprocessors, Albertson’s has been relying on red meat from companies Alle Beef and Solomon Natural Beef and poultry from Empire Chicken. Gillespie said the prices of beef have not risen, although the cost of chicken has by about 20 percent.
QFC spokesperson Kristin Maas told a similar story.
“We saw an initial supply issue following the raid, but we have worked with two new suppliers and now we’re back in stock,” she said.
Maas added that there has been no change in the price of kosher meats sold at either of its University Village or Mercer Island locations, which have the largest kosher selections.
Ice cream and tentative optimism
Maggie Moo’s on Mercer Island was the Seattle area’s only certified kosher ice cream parlor. Though open for less than a year, when the shop closed at the end of 2007, kosher-keeping ice cream lovers had to make do with the supermarket’s freezer case to satisfy their cravings. Luckily for them, however, the franchise re-opened at the beginning of May under new ownership.
Thereasa Crowley, the new proprietor of Maggie Moo’s, said that, while the shop is not currently under supervision from the Va’ad, she has intentions of getting Maggie Moo’s certified kosher again in the coming months.
“The cost slowed me down a bit,” Crowley said of her decision to have Maggie Moo’s re-certified. “But we had enough people asking about it that it seems worth the price.”
Another local ice cream parlor, Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream, which opened in May in Wallingford, will also be seeking kosher certification in the coming months, according to owner Molly Moon Neitzel.
“I just know that there aren’t many kosher places out there,” Neitzel said. “I seems like it would be easy to do for an ice cream parlor to do.”
Neitzel said she hopes to take necessary steps to securing kosher supervision in the fall, after the summer rush has died down.
When asked if he anticipates the addition of any other kosher eateries to the Seattle scene in the coming months, Maimon noted that the Va’ad is currently working with “a couple of prospective businesses in various stages,” although he was hesitant to offer details about what types of establishments those may be.
He did say that the Va’ad would be anxious to work with anyone who wanted to open a kosher pizza place, a deli, or anything that offers more than the existing vegetarian and vegan fare.
“There’s a significant, perceived need for those types of establishments,” he said. “But for one reason of another no place like that has stayed open [in Seattle] for very long.”