The Restaurateur’s Dilemma: To Open or To Close

By E.B. Solomont

Published April 22, 2005, issue of April 22, 2005.
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It was close to midnight on a Sunday night last April when Jose Meirelles ordered his servers at Manhattan’s Le Marais restaurant to put down their trays and start the evening’s real work: preparing the restaurant for Passover. A specially hired crew was slated to arrive any minute to help with a whirlwind, overnight cleaning effort. By lunchtime the next day, the already kosher steakhouse was set to reopen in kosher for Passover form.

It’s an awful lot of work for just a few extra days of business, but the situation’s economics couldn’t be ignored. The pre-holiday evening promised to be a big one — what with clients whose own kitchens were already “turned over” being in need of a place to eat — but the hard work really would pay off during the holiday itself when the Passover dining crowd, with options that are limited by the holiday’s restrictions, would nearly double the restaurant’s usual volume.

And Meirelles is far from alone.

Though practically unknown as recently as two decades ago, the kosher for Passover restaurant has become an increasingly common feature on New York’s hyper-competitive kosher circuit. Though just a handful of kosher restaurants around the country stay open, in New York the trend has only grown. In recent years, even casual delis, where meals are normally served between slices of rye, have taken the Passover plunge.

If the kosher for Passover trend had a trailblazer, it was Doris Schechter, owner of the My Most Favorite Dessert Company bakery and restaurant. Some 20 years ago, she decided to try staying open for the holiday. Since then, closing for three days, power washing and repainting her bakery to eliminate all traces of flour has become the standard pre-Passover routine.

Though Schechter, a Holocaust survivor, was moved by conviction (“It’s who I am”), for most restaurateurs, the decision whether to stay open is a matter of dollars and cents.

Sheldon Kane, owner of the Slice of Life and Hy-Life Bistro restaurants in Skokie, Ill., said it’s too expensive to stay open. “Hopefully you do a little more business before and a little more business after,” he said. This helps make up for revenue that is lost while the restaurant is closed.

Because the price of upgrading from kosher to kosher for Passover is high, it is mostly upscale restaurants that do so, said Rabbi Dov Schreier, rabbinic coordinator for food service at the Orthodox Union, which issues kosher certifications. Also, menus that are less expensive and often limited can’t eliminate prohibited ingredients as easily: “Fast food is just not going to happen, because much of it is chometz based,” he said. (For its part, the O.U. does not charge an additional fee to certify a restaurant kosher for Passover, although restaurants pay for rabbis to inspect and ritually kosherize equipment.)

But even with high cleaning costs, higher than normal customer volume has tended to balance out things. For example, Meirelles said his restaurant turns over between 400 and 500 covers on an average day; during Passover, the restaurant averages between 700 and 800.

Dining out “makes my life easier because I don’t kasher my apartment,” said Julie Gans of Manhattan, who made her Passover dining reservations a full month in advance. “It’s that or go to my in-laws, and they live an hour from the city.”

But Gans, who has dined out during Passover for the past three years, pointed out that during Passover, restaurant owners tend to get away with things that they normally wouldn’t.

Gans noted one recent Passover meal, which she called indicative of the Passover dining experience as a whole. “It was double the seating in the same amount of time,” she said. “The service was mediocre, the food cold — and prices were super expensive.” And this was after an hour-long wait for seat. “Where else was I going to go?” she asked with a shrug.

At the Los Angeles restaurant L.A. Glatt — one of very few restaurants outside of New York to open during Passover — dining conditions seem to resemble Gans’s description. Owner Kelly Benarroch said she doesn’t take reservations for the 35-seat restaurant because “we don’t have time to save tables for people.” Even with 15- to 20-minute waits, she estimated that the restaurant does 60% more business during Passover than on average.

Benarroch said she considers staying open to be a service to tourists and locals who don’t want to cook, but she raises prices in order to be able to afford to do so. For her, at least, the tactic has paid off. She has reported Passover profits in past years because customer volume has been so high.

“People seem hungrier on Passover without carbs,” Schechter said, acknowledging that on Passover, customers will put up with inconveniences they normally wouldn’t, like waiting for a table without complaining.

Moti Zilber, owner of the midtown Manhattan deli Mr. Broadway, argued that he plans to raise his prices only slightly — $3 or $4 per entrée. To stay open, he argued, “is a big investment.”

Schechter said, “If I break even, I am happy.” And to ensure that her customers are happy, too, she has mastered the art of the Passover pastry. “We do macaroons,” she said of the traditional almond-based Passover cookie, “but avant garde.”

E.B. Solomont is a freelance writer living in New York City.






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