Kosher Evolution In Baltimore, restaurants and businesses redefine a traditional industry

A selection of options from Van Gough Café (Photo by David Stuck)

With Baltimore’s Jewry so heavily invested in local arts, sciences and philanthropy, it is no surprise that Jews are prevalent in the world of  cutting-edge cuisine. Just as  Israel is now a global culinary destination, Baltimore has  experienced an explosion of innovative restaurants and businesses to appeal to a growing audience of young Jews who want more gourmet options when it comes to  kosher food.

The past decade or so has seen a shift in Baltimore’s tastes from more traditional Jewish fare to a melting pot of diverse flavors and cuisines sought by a growing population of young professionals.

The exponential growth of kosher pop-ups and restaurants that are taking the cuisine scene to the next level is summarized well by Pesachya Neuman, a local mashgiach.

“The scene in Pikesville used to be a yeshiva town,” he said. “A lot of the community came here for that reason. Now, a lot of people come to Baltimore for its colleges and end up staying here, so a very different, more modern crowd … has been coming here over the past 20 years.”

Different flavors of Aufschnitt beef sticks (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

This new crowd might want a kosher meal that is distinctly un-Orthodox, such as a kosher bacon cheeseburger from Chaim Silverberg’s CWS Meats, or they might want the fine dining experience offered at Serengeti. Even kosher snacking is being redefined with Abraham Deutsch’s turkey and beef jerky company, Aufschnitt Meats. Kosher foods are even keeping in line with trends such as gluten-free or vegan diets.

According to Jon Kaplan, a kosher chef partnered with Mosaic Caterers, “every year, there are more products that mimic nonkosher foods. If you look for nondairy options, it used to just be nondairy creamer filled with chemicals, but now you can use a coconut milk or almond milk or cashew milk — they are natural, healthy and pareve. You also have [people with] gluten allergies, and there are certain spices that people can’t have, so you really need to know as a chef how things are prepared and how to make things taste good. With the chef talent that is in Baltimore, we definitely can give people those options.”

Part of the success of these new kosher trends is that the food appeals to a nonkosher audience as well.

“We’re not necessarily appealing to the local kosher economy. Often, I feel that the local economy’s kosher religious clientele do not understand the value of what we offer,” said Silverberg of his specialty, kosher lamb bacon, which many observant Jews hesitate to try.

Chocolate mousse by
Sweet and Good Catering (Photo by Leba Dinovitz)

“That’s not a problem with us, though,” he continued. “We are a luxury high-end good first before we are kosher. I am a religious Jew, I am very happy running a kosher company, I feel that it is an integrity thing, but most of our market reach is not build on a kosher clientele.”

Michael Glaser, also a local mashgiach, said, “My motto is, ‘Why can’t kosher food be just as good as nonkosher food?’” His father was a master chef and did not keep kosher, so upon moving to Baltimore, Glaser took issue with the customary kosher fare of Baltimore.

“Until recently, no one had any desire to make the kosher food any better because everything was good enough,” he said. “But with the huge amount of people coming here from other cities, people’s tastes have changed. People moving in here who are professionals — doctors, lawyers, CPAs — are saying, ‘I want to eat good, I want something special.’”

Glaser also pointed out that those advocating for more variety in the kosher food scene were not necessarily raised kosher and were therefore more accustomed to nonkosher restaurant offerings.

“There are also a lot of people who weren’t religious but who now miss a bacon cheeseburger,” he said. “These people have experienced places from Hardee’s to Ruth’s Chris. It might have been their favorite thing, and now they can finally get something that gives them a taste of what life was back then, but kicked up to another level.”

Menu Mix-Ups

An increasing number of kosher restaurants in the area are trying to be fresh, new and appealing to adapt to their clientele. Mindy Alezra, who is Orthodox, has owned and operated the Van Gough Café in Fells Point for the past eight years. At first, it was exclusively a coffee shop. However, Alezra quickly discovered that the kosher crowd was coming in to eat, so she expanded the menu to have all kinds of dairy items. Over the summer, she will be revamping her menu again to provide more high-end options such as crepes.

Mindy Alezra (right) stands with her daughter in front of Van Gough Café in Fells Point. (Photo by David Stuck)

“The neighborhood has totally changed, it is very yuppie now,” she said. “We want to move to more gourmet options because we sell the good Jewish things here, the real lox and the real bagels. We get our bagels from Pikesville, so you won’t find better bagels in the city. I get a lot of regulars who work down here and come in almost every day and ask, ‘What’s new?’ — so you have to keep reinventing yourself.”

Alezra’s plan is to begin experimenting over the summer with weekly specials, which she will add to the regular menu if they become popular. For instance, since the café is a dairy institution, she plans to begin cooking with vegetarian meats and tofu items to give people more diversity of flavor and texture.

“People want to eat things that they have in regular restaurants, so we need to learn how to adapt,” she said. “The challenge of being just a dairy restaurant is that you have to figure out how to enhance it to make it more mainstream.”

Lara and Larry Franks, owners of Accents, Serengeti and Cocoaccinos, three kosher staples of upper Park Heights, are in the process of expanding their own dairy operations by moving Cocoaccinos to an as-yet-named larger space in the coming months. The expansion is due to anticipation of the needs of the local community.

“We think that someone is going to come into [this part of] Baltimore and open a kosher dairy restaurant, because there isn’t one,” said Larry. “There are many dairy pizza shops, but no dairy restaurant. We think that there is a gap there.”

The couple first opened Cocoaccinos because they didn’t feel that there was a kosher “A-to-Z” coffee shop anywhere in Baltimore due to the required long hours and having to be open on Saturdays. But they thought it was what the community needed. However, similar to Alzera, they quickly found out that it was all about the food and less about the coffee.

Lara Franks, Serengeti’s owner, stands in the establishment’s dining room. (Photo by David Stuck)

“[Cocoaccinos] is a great dairy café with a busy lunch business and a nice breakfast trade, just a comfortable casual environment with lighter, healthier fare and a bit more affordable,” said Lara. “The newer restaurant will be like Cocoaccinos, but at night we will have wait service, and we will give people the ambiance that goes with good dairy food that is lacking and will expand the menus because we will have a much bigger kitchen and will offer people a more unique dinner dining experience. It will be a place where our chef can express himself.”

The Franks have managed to operate three successful kosher restaurants because of their adaptability and their concerns with the needs of their customers. Prior to the opening of Serengeti, they hosted focus groups with representatives of different segments of the community to ask what people wanted out of their new establishment. They intend to repeat the process to tailor the new Cocoaccinos to the community.

“We stay open-minded, we are not scared to change directions, we are not scared to say we have been doing it wrong, we don’t get stuck in our ways,” said Lara.

She said that in the kitchens at their three restaurants, the Franks employ three culinary school grads and three culinary students who are allowed to innovate freely at the new Cocoaccinos. An entrée item at Accents and an appetizer on the menu of Cocoaccinos were both dishes proposed by these chefs that were readily adopted.

As restaurants can embrace their chefs, so too can professionally trained chefs hop on the kosher train, as Anthony Kennedy, a non-Jewish culinary student of Strathmore University working in the kitchen of Cocoaccinos, found out.

“When I first applied, I didn’t realize that it was kosher,” he said. “It took me time to become accustomed to kosher rules and regulations. I have to keep in mind that I have to ask a mashgiach before I use the oven or the stove. That was the only challenge, though. In culinary school, they try to keep us very diverse, so cooking kosher isn’t very different at all.”

The Cost of Kosher

Today, the kosher food industry is slowly closing the gap with nonkosher foods.

Abraham Deutsch (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Abraham Deutsch’s kosher beef and turkey jerky started in 2013 with $200,000 in sales. It has products nationwide in kosher stores as well as in 1,600 of the 2,400 Kroger stores nationwide.

It has been able to edge into the nonkosher market because its pricing is comparable to nonkosher brands, with a bag of jerky selling for $5.99 and sticks selling for $1.99. This, however, is a rare feat in the world of kosher foods, where a heavy price difference is one of the main obstacles.

Larry Franks provided a perfect example when his supplier to Cocoaccinos ran out of Halev Israel ricotta cheese, leaving Seven Mile Market as his only alternative. According to Franks, the non-Halev Israel ricotta was on special for $2.99 for 2 pounds, but the Halev Israel cheese was $6 for 1 pound — more than triple the price.

“We have to pass that cost along and then still make a profit on top of it,” he said. “It is a really difficult thing to do.”

Further impeding the growth of kosher restaurants are nonkosher consumers who don’t understand why kosher options are more expensive, according to Franks.

“If you go onto Yelp for kosher restaurants,” he said, “a vast majority of negative feedback is by non-Jews complaining about the price, and that is a problem for us business owners because we cannot be competitive with the non- kosher world as far as price.”

While price can be an obstacle for restaurants, finding a distributor to get a product into kosher stores can be equally troublesome, according to Deutsch, who had to be a go-getter in order to get his jerky on the market.

An entree from the restaurant Serengeti. (Photo by David Stuck)

“When we first opened, we visited multiple kosher distributors in the New York tri-state area, but no large kosher distributors would touch it,” he said. “One small distributor really took our product in and pushed it from store to store, and slowly grew the business. Since then, all the other distributors have realized that it is a great product and want to carry it, but that was only after we did the initial work of pushing it.”

Deutsch said that distributors will not bring on new products if they don’t see a future for it. Kosher jerky was a hard sell because “Jews were not used to this type of snacking,” he said. However, his product became popular over time, as people came to realize that it is high in protein, low in fat and a healthy alternative to give kids instead of junk food.

Perhaps Deutsch summed up the mindset of the evolving kosher food scene best of all.

“You’ve always got to make sure to keep up with trends, he said. “It will take many more years for the kosher market to catch up to the nonkosher market, but that’s where the industry is going. They are mimicking and trying to mimic more and more of the nonkosher market. Our plan for the near future is to try very hard to break into the nonkosher market, but we will not lose focus on our core market, the kosher market, because right now, that’s our bread and butter.”

dnozick@midatlanticmedia.com

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