‘No Donuts, No Peace,’ Cry Kosher Protesters

By Nathaniel Popper

Published March 09, 2007, issue of March 09, 2007.
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What does it take to spark a Jewish protest movement? Sometimes nothing more than a good cup of joe and a doughnut.

Over the past month, Dunkin’ Donuts has faced a wave of protest after news got out that a Washington-area franchise was being pushed by its corporate parents to serve the company’s bacon-heavy sandwiches — a move that would result in the loss of its kosher status. An online petition collected thousands of signatures as word spread that Dunkin’ Donuts was pressuring its 40 other kosher franchises to lose the kosher certification and add nonkosher items, like the new maple-cheddar breakfast sandwich.

The response from the online petitioners was swift. Some kept their comments simple: “Jews run on Dunkin’.” Others made appeals to the company’s morals: “We need a kosher Dunkin’ Donuts — especially for our children!”

According to the company’s corporate headquarters, the decision to change the franchise in the Washington suburb of Potomac, Md., was based on local demographics and will not affect other franchises. But the dam had been broken.

“My colleague received hundreds upon hundreds of e-mails and voice mails on her personal line,” said Andrew Mastrangelo, a Dunkin’ Donuts spokesman. “We just want to say, ‘Please, we’re not turning your store nonkosher.’”

In an era of low-fat, no-carb diets, a popular movement based on sugar-laden pastries can be a hard thing to wrap one’s head around. For observant Jews, though, Dunkin’ Donuts and a few other coffee chains are among the only points of access to mainstream, chain-restaurant America.

“The sad fact of life is that we are in the kosher community — we don’t get access to the other world very often,” said Rabbi Binyamin Sanders, director of field operations for the Washington rabbinical authority, or Vaad, that provides kosher certification for local Dunkin’ Donuts branches.

“The other world is the world where you can have a Dunkin’ Donuts product,” Sanders added. “It’s not like those regular kosher stores. It’s a national thing. It’s something you can feel like part of the rest of the world. You’re not so isolated.”

Most chain restaurants, with their emphasis on cheeseburgers, fried chicken and milkshakes, don’t stand a chance of being certified kosher. Coffee and doughnut shops do, though, because their big-ticket items do not rely on meat.

Kosher experts say that coffee is generally easy to certify, given that little more than water is used to roast the beans. Doughnuts, however, proved confusing enough to warrant an essay from a leading kosher authority at the Orthodox Union, the world’s largest certifier of kosher goods. Rabbi Yisroel Bendelstein concluded that “while there is solid ground to be lenient with doughnuts, there are kashrut agencies that make sure the flames of the fryolators used to fry the doughnuts at a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise store, for example, are ignited by a Jew. This then offsets entirely the issue of bishul akum,” the prohibition against eating food cooked by a non-Jew.

Other than Dunkin’ Donuts, the main national franchise to offer kosher supervision is Krispy Kreme, which supports 70 kosher outlets. The North Carolina-based company, which has 300 stores in all, makes its mixes at a central kosher-certified factory. An individual store that wants to go kosher needs only to bring in a rabbi and make minimal menu adjustments.

For cookie-cutter chain restaurants, going completely kosher is not such a simple process. At Dunkin’ Donuts, local franchises have to apply to corporate headquarters and show that there is commercial justification for appealing to a Jewish audience. The owner of the controversial Dunkin’ Donuts near Washington, Jim Willard, who owns six stores in all, made his first foray into kashrut nine years ago. Now, each time the company comes out with a new product, Willard says he has to order a small batch and pass it by the local rabbis.

Leaving out such items as the sausage sandwiches does not go down well with some of his non-Jewish customers. “They don’t understand,” Willard said. “They say, ‘You put this on TV, and now you don’t have it?’ They’re disappointed and upset.”

Nonetheless, Willard kept five of his franchises kosher until last month. The change came after company officials allegedly told him that they wanted to standardize the menu and add nonkosher items. Though Willard was able to maintain the kosher certification at his store in the local Jewish community center, he said the company pushed him to bring bacon into a store in Potomac’s heavily Jewish Cabin John neighborhood.

“You can say that we were exceedingly disappointed,” said Sanders, of the Washington Vaad. “We tried to contact the people who made the decision, and they did not respond.”

Mastrangelo said the company never pushed Willard; rather, it made the decision in consultation with him based on the area’s changing demographics. In New York, a new kosher Dunkin’ Donuts recently opened in the Bronx and a kosher branch on Long Island had heard nothing about doing away with its kosher supervision.

This is not the first time there has been kosher confusion at a Dunkin’ Donuts. Last summer, a New York franchise with kosher supervision was attacked for selling sandwiches that contained meat. The owner of that store has since hired a new kosher supervisor. The rabbi, Harry Cohen, said it is a relatively easy supervision but he still goes in each week to check up and have a doughnut.

When asked which doughnut was his favorite, Cohen said, “Sometimes I’ll take, what do you call it, the filled doughnuts — the chocolate top with the filling inside. It’s just a matter of taste. The point is, they’re all good.”


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