Q: Why doesn’t DC have more kosher food restaurants? A: The Vaad

This piece reflects only the views of Stephen Richer.  It is not a GTJ institutional stance.


If you keep kosher, life in DC can be tough.  Your options for eating are:

Why so few options?  DC has a sizeable Jewish population…  Why do we lag so far behind our neighboring Eastern power-cities in terms of kosher food?  (DC dominates in all else)

Do I overestimate the demand?  Are there enough kosher eaters in the city to support more than two restaurants?  It sure seems like it – I hear people complain on a regular basis about the lack of kosher restaurants in DC (Though, as John Stewart once ironically noted (paraphrased), it’s not exactly hard to get a 70-year old Jewish man to complain).  But it’s hard to know for sure without surveying the entire DC population.

But supply on the other hand…  Interruptions in the supply curve could be tested.

So ten months ago, two friends (one GTJ co-conspirator and one former Jewish Guy of the Week) and I to see if we could open a kosher deli in North Dupont complete with Jewish trivia questions for discounts, pastrami sandwiches stacked high, and a menorah punch card that earned you a free sandwich on your ninth visit.

We assembled the team.
We got the capital.
Kosher certification…?

Kosher certification for the DC area is supposed to go through the Vaad (short for Vaad Harabanim: The Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington).

It would be kind to say that the Vaad received our proposal coldly.  It felt more like we were asking them for their firstborn child than we were their certification.

And then we got to costs:

  • $2,000 for the initial kasherization.
  • Yearly inspection fee.
  • $60,000 for Mashgiach salary.

The salary for the mashgiach seemed a bit steep given the proposed small size of our store.  But we thought there might be some ways to mitigate it.

Q: The mashgiach could double as our store manager, right?
A: No.  He would need to focus on kashrut responsibilities.

Q: We could stay open for long hours and try to generate more revenue to offset the salary.
A: Yes.  But you would need to hire two mashgiachs you stayed open for more than 50 hours a week.

Q: What if we don’t sell meat?  Would we still need a mashgiach?
A: Yes, he would still have to be there from opening till close, but he could devote more of his time to non-Kosher activities.
Commentary: This ran contrary to almost everything I had heard.

Q: Any chance we can sell stuff on Friday nights?  This is Dupont after all!  We wouldn’t have the mashgiach there – we would just sell pre-wrapped sandwiches, and we wouldn’t use the money to profit, just to cover our costs.
A: No.

As if that weren’t enough, they then told us that because one of the partners owned another restaurant that wasn’t kosher, they couldn’t give us a new license until we kasherized the other restaurant.

That was the breaking point.  Pretty disappointing.  I hope others have better luck.  But it’s no longer surprising to me why DC doesn’t have more kosher food.

Note: I’m also kind of curious as to how Spike Mendelsohn is able to start this kosher food truck when he owns a non-kosher restaurant…  Maybe he went to a service other than the Vaad.  Maybe we should done that too, but we were told that wasn’t “kosher.”

 

29 replies
      • Stephen Richer
        Stephen Richer says:

        Ok. Better informed sources have assured me that Maoz is still kosher certified, but is not certified by the Vaad. I obviously went about this wrong way. The Vaad should be avoided at all costs apparently. I just learned that the Sixth & Rye food truck also did not use Vaad.

        Reply
  1. B
    B says:

    Two questions that need answering- Why is the Vaad the only possible certifier? (And relatedly whose business would be lost if an alternative hechsher were chosen?) Why does your proposed restaurant need a full time mashgiach yet the Krispy Kreme (and likely other kosher certified food producers) does not?

    Reply
  2. Zev
    Zev says:

    Great piece, Stephen.

    You touched on a few things that I have thought about for years.

    Opening a kosher restaruant is certainly not easy or cheap, but that shouldn’t be the only reason DC doesn’t have one. After all, it’s no cheaper to open a kosher restaurant anywhere else. Yes, in some places like NY or Miami you have more people who keep kosher, but if the food is good and has mainstream appeal I don’t think the fact that it’s kosher would preclude the non-kosher from eating there (e.g. Solo is a fancy kosher restaurant in NYC that is popular with non-Jewish celebrities).

    Also, I think that if you want to be successful you should open up a dairy restaurant. Eli’s has already got the kosher meat monopoly (Eli’s also owns the cafe in the JCC) and the last thing we need is another pastrami & corned beef joint. Let’s get creative! DC truly needs a good dairy place with pizza or bagels or sushi or all three in one place!

    I’m also glad u asked about the kosher-truck being owned a guy who owns a non-kosher restaurant. Recently a good restaurant in NY was shut down, b/c they lost their heksher (vaad harabonim of queens) because the owner opened up an unkosher place elsewhere so it suprises me that the kosher truck got certification. I know it didn’t go through the vaad harabonim of Greater Washington, but I’m curious as to who is certifying it. Do you know?

    Anyway, I’m also curious to know who says not using the vaad of greater washington isn’t kosher? I know they are a good and reliable heksher (I know the rabbi personally and he’s a great man), but surely there are other heksherim nearby like Star-K of Baltimore for example…

    Reply
    • Stephen Richer
      Stephen Richer says:

      Hi Zev!

      Thanks for the note.

      YOU: “Opening a kosher restaruant is certainly not easy or cheap, but that shouldn’t be the only reason DC doesn’t have one.”

      RESPONSE: The cost does scare away some potential entrants, but I found the rules and restrictions and general uncertainty to be more inhibiting,

      YOU: “Eli’s has already got the kosher meat monopoly.”

      RESPONSE: Disagree. This would be like saying that there’s no room for Pepsi because Coke already exists. Pepsi competition keeps the competition high, the price down, and the quality high. Also, I’m pretty sure there are multiple pizza restaurants in Dupont Circle…

      YOU: “Anyway, I’m also curious to know who says not using the vaad of greater washington isn’t kosher?”

      RESPONSE: Every rabbi we talked with (Shemtov, Teitelbaum, Berkman, etc) told us we should go through the Vaad first because they were the official DC certifier.

      Thanks!

      Reply
  3. Zev
    Zev says:

    Btw I know it may be annoying to put up with the stringencies that may be perceived as unnecessary, but if you want people who keep kosher to patronize the establishment, it can’t just say ‘kosher.’ It’s got to be a reliable and trustworthy certification. Whether it’s truly kosher or not can only depend on a reliable expert in the field. Obviously whatever heksher you get won’t please everybody, but it should please the majority of kosher-keeping Jews in the area. Otherwise there’s no purpose in opening up a kosher restaurant at all.

    Reply
    • Stephen Richer
      Stephen Richer says:

      I’m just asking that there be a little more sunlight on the rules and policies, such that it’s not just a made of Kosher-certification shopping until you find the lenient one.

      Reply
  4. Sacha
    Sacha says:

    Great commentary. It’s something I’ve been wondering in my mind for years, too. My guess about how Spike Mendelssohn got the hechsher is because he is using the 6th and I kitchen to produce all his food, and then selling it from the truck, and the entity is probably owned by 6th and I, not Spike Mendelssohn (though I’m sure they have a contract with him).

    My feeling is that the only kosher restaurant niche that DC is really missing is a high end meat restaurant with great ambiance. A place where folks can do high end business lunches and dinners too (Does anyone remember L’Etoile?). Then you also have the revenues to offset the mashgiach.

    Reply
    • Stephen Richer
      Stephen Richer says:

      Thanks. Sixth & Rye went through a Maryland agency after getting turned down by Vaad. See my most recent post on kosher stuff (on this blog).

      You’re right about off-setting costs… You’d need to either go upscale or do huge inventory so that you could push the mashgiach costs to a smaller percentage.

      Reply
  5. Rob Feldmeier
    Rob Feldmeier says:

    There are actually more kosher options in DC than first meet the eye, but you have to dig for them. For example, I was walking by the Crumbs Cupcake stand in Union Station once. Boy, those cupcakes looked good and I wished that I could have one – turn out, all Crumbs locations are under the supervision of Rabbi Harry Cohen, of Orthodox Kashrut Supervision in New York.

    Many frozen yougurt locations, if not under actual supervision themselves, sell products which are kosher. For example, Freshens Yogurt is produced under cRc or Vaad of St. Louis supervision.

    You do need to make sure that what you are ordering is kosher. According to the cRc, “(the) policy and opinion regarding the purchase of ice cream from shops that are not certified kosher… no open product should be purchased without the consumer personally inspecting each item. Any ice cream must first be determined to be kosher and in some cases, the scoop must be first washed clean. Any other products purchased, such as cones, toppings, milk or any other additives, must also be inspected to determine if it is kosher. Items such as cakes and novelty items may be coming in from another outside source, so special care must be taken when purchasing any of these items. Since one may not assume that there were no changes made since the last visit, this all must be done each time you go into the store to make a purchase! ”

    However, ice cream and frozen yogurt places are another option, provided you follow the advice above.

    A previous poster mention Maoz Vegetarian, which has supervision from Rabbi Israel Steinberg of New York. Some DC rabbis I know have raised concerns about this hechsher, so check with your Rabbi concerning the permissability of eating here.

    Krispy Kreme on Dupont Circle is under Vaad Supervision.

    Anyone else know of other less-known kosher options, outside of Eli’s, the Distrikt Cafe, etc?

    Reply
    • Stephen Richer
      Stephen Richer says:

      But these aren’t kosher restaurants. Starbucks sells some kosher products, but it’s not a kosher restaurant… Idk… the whole thing is confusing to me.

      Reply
  6. Will G
    Will G says:

    5th Avenue Kosher Dehli at The George Washington University Marvin Center (21st and H) – Vaad of Greater Washington, Trader Joe’s also has a considerable amount of kosher products…I heard there are kosher products at some market by the Clealand Park metro stop, but Idk…

    Unfortunately, if you’re chalov yisroel you’re pretty screwed in dc…One reason why I moved back to NY.

    Reply
  7. C
    C says:

    From Kesher (Orthodox Shul in DC)

    “Despite extensive negotiations between the Vaad and 6th and I the structure necessary for us to grant supervision was unfortunately unattainable
    as such the truck is sadly not recommended
    I will make this the first question at Carlebach Q&A Friday night and if requested at Seudah Shlishit
    Rabbi Freundel”

    Reply
  8. Jon
    Jon says:

    At some point we have to ask the question how much is about being kosher, and how much is about padding the pockets of those involved with Vaad. After the incident in the Midwest with the illegal immigrants and the poor working conditions (but technically kosher food) it appears that we are really missing the spirit of the Kashrut. Instead of trying to create a society that tries to accommodate Jews we have created a society that runs high costs and accommodates those who stand to profit from the religious.

    Reply
  9. Ethan
    Ethan says:

    There will soon be another kosher restaurant in DC. Soupergirl will be opening in Takoma Park (inside the DC line). The precise opening date isn’t known yet, but hopefully sometime in June. Kosher certification will be provided by Rabbi Weiss of Ohr Hachaim in Baltimore (the same rabbi that is overseeing Sixth and Rye). As Soupergirl’s soups are all vegan, my understanding is that it will be a parve restaurant.

    -Ethan
    (happy Soupergirl customer)

    Reply
  10. Will
    Will says:

    Ma nishma, Stephen?!

    I understand why the rabbis asked u to go to the vaad first, but I’d try star K.

    Also, there is not one single kosher dairy establishment in dc! Talk about an untapped market. People like myself who keep kosher 365 would love to go to a good dairy place. Nobody wants corned beef sandwhiches all the time! It would be nice to be able to just grab a slice or a bagel. No 3-6 hour wait afterwards! 🙂

    Reply
  11. haim ohana
    haim ohana says:

    Hello everyone
    I plan to open a dairy restaurant with sushi, pizza, bagels, coffee, pastries, cakes, pasta with cheese and other goodies
    Who can help me with some things (I’m from Israel) to do it quick to contact me my email
    haim.ohanaa@gmail.com

    Thanks
    Haim Ohana

    Reply
  12. james faier
    james faier says:

    I am at national airport and wish I could find a kosher meal. Inevitably the fault for the lack of kosher food goes to all. So many of us don’t seek it and we do not inspire/cajole of fellow Israelites to seek it either. Education is usually the way forward. Hopefully the rabbinic leadership will read this and speak of the need for all Israelites to live observant and kosher lives. Thank you for your time.

    Reply

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