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The Problems with the Kosher Restaurant Industry … and Some Solutions

Over the last few years, and especially over the last few days, people have been discussing the various ongoing issues within the kosher restaurant industry. The recent article in the Forward has recently brought some of this to light, albeit in a way that will not help solve anything … but at least we’re talking about it now, right?

I’m using this post as an attempt to articulate my understanding of the various groups and issues that comprise the kosher restaurant industry and discuss potential remedies for each group. The purpose of this post is not to point fingers at anyone in particular, but rather to address a major issue, and I think we can all come to terms with the fact that there’s plenty of blame to go around. So let’s do something about it.

Before I break down the various players, I want to make an important point, especially for the consumers who read this: Operating a restaurant of any kind is a very difficult business, let alone a kosher one which is even more complex than a non-kosher one. There are so many components to operating a functioning restaurant that are not seen by consumers that we’ve come to assume that everything is easy. It is not. The top restaurants make it look easy, but they work hard behind the scenes to make that happen. Kudos to the restaurateurs who set out to provide our community with kosher options, even if it’s another pizzeria or sushi bar. Thank you.


When thinking about the breakdowns within the industry, and the myriad of reasons of why things go wrong, I’ve concluded that two particular things come into play for all parties involved: the existence or lack of (1) transparency OR (2) respect. A lot of issues can fall into one of those two categories and it can differ for each party involved. But I’m convinced that by (truly) fixing these two components, we can start to see change within the industry.

The players involved:

  1. Kashrut certification agencies, rabbis, and mashgiachs
  2. Kosher restaurants, restaurateurs, and their employees
  3. Kosher media: publishers, bloggers, social media personalities, etc.
  4. Kosher consumers

(I suppose I could add a fifth player, kosher suppliers, but for the sake of dealing with the issues here, they’re a non-factor. Suppliers are a factor in the cost of kosher food, but that’s generally the same for everyone, so it’s moot.)

  1. Kashrut certification agencies, rabbis, and mashgiachs

Besides for consumers, kosher restaurants are beholden to the whims of their kosher certifying agency. It’s a catch-22. A kosher restaurant can’t survive as a kosher restaurant without one, but sometimes they’re put in difficult situations because of them.

  • Some kashrut certifiers, of late, have made many decisions or decrees that are not kashrut related that often end up severely hurting the restaurant financially. A few examples include forcing a restaurant to change a name, dictating how and when the restaurant’s TV’s can and can’t be used, and forcing restaurants to change the nomenclature of the menu or how they describe their dishes publicly. None of this has anything to do with kashrut. I fully understand that there are certain norms that a community might want to enforce, but that is easily enforceable by the community members / consumers who can choose to not eat at that restaurant if those norms don’t meet their hashkafic standards. The market can decide very well, and restaurants will surely fall in line. It is an overreach that has many restauranteurs complaining because they can’t operate without the certifier’s services.

This is an issue of transparency. Each certifying agency should be transparent from the get go what their stipulations are, allowing the restaurant to choose the certifier that best meets their needs. However, there are certain areas where there is only one recognized certifier. They hold a lot of power and have no incentive to be transparent. It is important that areas with single certifiers should have some type of document that is widely distributed so that there are no surprises later.  Creating transparency between the parties involved will save parnassah for many restaurant clients.

  • With regards to the issue of respect, it is fair to say that rabbis are very knowledgeable and learned individuals, especially as it relates to halacha and kashrut. However, it is not a given that those running kashrut agencies are business savvy. Many of the aforementioned issues brought to restaurants with no basis in kashrut cause financial harm to the parnassah of restaurateurs. Other issues I’ve come across include mashgiachs (who typically are required to be salaried employees of the restaurant, often one of the first ones salaried) who are not equally contributing members of the restaurant’s staff and don’t perform other duties in the restaurant, which they should; or mashgiachs who show up late / leave early and cause a disruption in service for a restaurant that requires a mashgiach temidi. These (hopefully rare) examples showcase a lack of respect for these small business owners and their parnassah.
  • In both of the above bullet points, it is clear that beyond the regular fees, kashrut agencies can have a negative affect on a the bottom line if there is a lack of both transparency and respect for their clients. If the agencies want to continue to earn fees from these restaurants, and they do, it behooves them to create a more sustainable working relationship that is mutually beneficial rooted in transparency and respect. After all, it is much cheaper to retain existing customers than it is to acquire new ones.

 

  1. Kosher restaurants, restaurateurs, and their employees

The types of restaurateurs (business owners and managers) that go into the kosher restaurant business varies, and it is a wide range that includes wealthy investors, real estate owners, classically trained chefs, cooks-turned-small-business-owner, and others. It is important to note that just because you have a lot of money to invest, or can cook really well, or can build a beautiful restaurant, or are great at marketing, does not automatically mean you can create and run a successful kosher business. There are so many factors at play to be successful here, and no one should take that for granted.

  • The most obvious case of a lack of transparency happens with a certain subset of restaurateurs. There are those who are open to customer feedback and critique. More often than not they will succeed because they identify problems, and if they truly care, they fix them and put out a better product moving forward. I am not referring to these restaurateurs. Those that do not want an open dialogue about their business, be it on a Facebook group, Instagram, Yelp, or even in person, will continue to put out subpar products and service, because they are not interested in feedback and/or changing what may be wrong. The notion that negative posts about your restaurant will hurt your parnassah and therefore is wrong is a fallacy.

Why is the parnassah of a restaurateur more important than the parnassah of their patrons? It isn’t, and to suggest otherwise is foolish. Consumers deserve to know what to expect and the world in which we live today is designed to give and distribute that feedback. Dialogue with your customers is essential. It is the lifeblood of all businesses in nearly every category. Brands across industries conduct ‘social listening’ analyses to get a better understanding of what consumers are saying about their businesses, good and bad, so they can take the feedback and improve. While ‘social listening’ is a pricey endeavor for small businesses, the feedback exists in the open, especially on social media channels, making it fairly simple to collect on a regular basis and incorporate into your business practices.

  • IDEAS:
    • Offer a way for consumers to provide feedback, publicly or privately, that shows consumers that not only are you listening, but that you are actually changing based on the feedback.
    • Actively request feedback, publicly, from your consumers. It shows your willingness to be transparent, and consumers appreciate that.
    • Don’t try to block negative comments or threaten those that leave them. It makes you look petty & foolish, and legally, consumers have the right to voice their opinions.
  • Restaurateurs, restaurant staff, or those related to the restaurant have been seen leaving positive reviews on behalf of the business without disclosing their relationship to the restaurant. This happens on Yelp, in Facebook groups, and around the web. This shows a complete lack of transparency and is misleading to consumers / geneivas daas.
  • On a regular basis, restaurants (staff & management) can showcase a lack of respect for their customers in a number of ways, including but not limited to:
    • Being nasty to customers
    • Putting out subpar food / overcharging for said product
    • Cutting corners on food, service, anything
    • Unnecessarily slow service / inattentive service
    • Not properly training employees
    • Being inflexible when errors are made
    • Mislabeling menu items
    • Underpaying employees
    • Churning chefs
    • Unclean tables
    • Tables cramped too closely together

Many of these points and issues are interrelated. If you don’t properly train your employees, they’re bound to mess up in one way or another, being nasty to the customer, conversing with other employees instead of being attentive to the needs of their customers, etc. Misleading customers with names of products that are obviously not the case like kosher Kobe beef. All of these issues show a lack of respect for the customer, which will only backfire in the long run. When you consistently put out a good product you will create a reputation for it, and conversely, when you consistently put out a bad product or service, you will be known for that too. Respecting your customer will yield dividends for your business.

  1. Kosher media: publishers, bloggers, social media personalities, etc.

People look to those that are a part of the “kosher media” for advice and recommendations and with that comes a responsibility to be open and honest.

  • The biggest issue here is transparency, and often the lack thereof. Advice and recommendations are only valid if consumers are aware of the nature of the relationships that the media has with the businesses they are writing about. Not only is obfuscating a relationship with a business geneivas daas, but it is also against U.S. law. The FTC requires that a “material connection” between an endorser and an advertiser be declared, on every post, in every instance. We in the kosher media can’t assume that it is understood what our relationship is with the business we are posting about by all the readers, thus FTC’s requirements. When the media misleads, or omits a relationship, it gives the perception of a tacit endorsement, which can create artificial demand for a restaurant that may or may not deserve it. Restaurateurs should expect that the media will disclose and they should not request an omission of a disclosure. Consumers should demand that the media disclose their relationship on posts where it appears unclear.
  • Members of the kosher media should not disrespect restaurants by demanding food or services thrown their way gratis. Yes, restaurants go out of their way to invite and court the media to create publicity. That is fine (so long as everyone discloses that the food was given for free). However, pushing restaurants to give you free product, skipping lines, or receiving better service shows a lack of respect to the restauranteur and places a bad name on the other members of the kosher media.
  1. Kosher consumers

Consumers are the largest group by population and whose wallets ultimately decide which restaurants survive or fail. How kosher consumers behave at restaurants, however, can also be a factor in the type of service they will receive.

  • There has become this notion within the community that us Jews are demanding, and we are. We have high expectations, and we always want them met. What we can’t do as consumers is be unrealistic and demanding when restaurants don’t meet our already high expectations, and essentially show a lack of respect when going out to eat. Consumers need to showcase patience and politeness to our fellow diners and especially to those serving us. Respect those around you when you’re eating, just as you’d expect those around you to show respect in a movie theater, on the train, when driving, and in all facets of your daily life.

The Torah teaches us to treat others with kindness. That way of interacting with others should continue at restaurants, even if you were waiting a long time for your table. This includes saying please and thank you; tipping appropriately to the service you received and for what is commensurate with the country you are in (eg. 15-20% in the U.S., less in Israel & Europe);  not being too loud as to disrupt other diners; etc. Surely there are more examples, but my point here is to just be a mensch.

  • In terms of transparency, similar to the power that the kosher media hold, kosher consumers also wield power in reviewing and recommending restaurants online. Consumers must also be transparent in their relationship to the restaurant, if they received free product in exchange for a positive review, etc. that should be disclosed.
  • Consumers that have issues with their meal should attempt to take the time to address the issues in a respectful way with the manager or owner. This can go a long way in the overall experience and potentially fix the issues you’ve dealt with. Restaurateurs who care will listen and resolve the issue.

 

Assuming all parties think about and internalize their role in the kosher restaurant industry and how they can be more transparent and more respectful, we’ll see material changes in the coming years.

 

This post is by no means a panacea for all that ills the kosher restaurant industry, but it’s a start.  This was also not meant to specifically point the finger at anyone in particular, but if you believe this is about you, please take the advice to heart and do not take offense. It was not intended.

I encourage the kashrut agencies, restaurateurs, media, consumers, and everyone in between to respectfully participate in the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks for reading.

~Dani

About the author

Dani Klein

Dani Klein is the founder of YeahThatsKosher, is passionate about global travel, good kosher food / restaurants, social media & the web, technology, digital marketing, and spending time with his friends & family.

Dani has an MBA in Marketing and works in the Social Media Marketing field for a large media agency.