The same week the Forward reported on the decline of kosher dairy restaurants in Manhattan, we learned that kosher vegan chain Beyond Sushi opened its sixth New York location - on a pricy Soho block, no less.
The timing didn’t strike us as a coincidence. High-design, moderately priced quick-service restaurants are conquering New York; why shouldn’t the same thing happen in the kosher segment?
With that in mind, we asked kosher-industry insiders if restaurants like Beyond Sushi - whose 8-piece rolls average $7.50 a pop - herald the future of kosher dining.
“We’ll definitely be seeing more thematic restaurants like this, because the younger set is looking for new and different experiences,” said Menachem Lubinsky, whose market-research firm Lubicom, focuses on the kosher business. “It fits the profile of what they’re looking for in dining. Dairy doesn’t fall under that classification.” Lubinsky also emphasized that kosher dining as a business remains exuberantly healthy. “The purveyors we know, and producers who sell to restaurants, tell us their business is up dramatically about 15-20% this year,” he said.
Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of kosher certifier OU Kosher, agreed. “Today’s kosher consumer is very sophisticated, and what was satisfactory to their parents and grandparents is not satisfactory to them,” he said. “For their parents, kosher meant a pastrami sandwich, or maybe a steak if you were lucky. But the trend in food in general now is that kosher consumers want to eat whatever their friends and colleagues are eating. They just want it to be kosher.”
Roger Horowitz, author of Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food was even more emphatic about a generational shift.
“The demand for kosher dairy isn’t stable. But observant Jews have been eating sushi for a long time, so there’s already an attraction” said Horowitz, who’s book comes out in paperback next month. “A modern sushi restaurant like [Beyond Sushi] sounds very much in line with contemporary American culinary practices - lighter, more decorative, modern cuisine. It’s not your parents’ kosher.” Design, he added, has become an important part of the kosher dining experience. “It’s also about ambiance, and even restaurants with good food can crash if they’re not attractive.”
A vegan operation like Beyond Sushi also has an advantage from a back-of-house perspective, Horowitz said. Forgoing meat and dairy means the restaurant eliminates some significant overhead that other kosher eateries have to bear. “If you don’t have to separate meat and milk, you’re eliminating an awful lot of expense,” Horowitz said. And even for non-vegan sushi joints, “you don’t have same problem of kosher salmon vs. non-kosher, which you do with beef. As long as it’s a kosher fish, it’s kosher.”
As for Beyond Sushi, its founders — onetime “Hell’s Kitchen” contestant Guy Vaknin and his wife/business partner, Tali Vaknin - say they’re just focused on keeping up with demand. “The most challenging thing about expanding is keeping good staff with us,” Guy Vaknin told the Forward. “How to hire the right people with the right training to produce the high quality and the consistency across locations.”
So is his mini-chain the future of kosher? “I’m not sure,” he said. “But I believe that if you execute the food and concept properly and keep the quality high, you’ll succeed in any market.”