For observant Jews, dining at a kosher restaurant is usually a comforting experience. The outing is typically free of the sorts of cautions that eating at a non-kosher establishment calls for when trying to follow the laws of kashrut: no need to scan the menu for traces of shellfish or meat, for example. And waiters also don’t need to be told about potential “allergies” (Jewish camouflage for “I can’t eat that on religious grounds”).
And yet, a meal at a kosher eatery often brings its own frustrations that cause diners to consider never returning to the premise again. Whether involving sub-par service, the food on offer, or exorbitant prices, the common experience leads to a single question: Why are so many kosher restaurants so bad?
To begin with, it would be helpful to understand what, exactly, makes a good eatery in general.
“I think customers go to restaurants for a variety of reasons,” said food and restaurant critic Andy Hayler. “Usually, it’s a combination of things: the food, something about the service, and the ambience. At least two of those criteria—food and service—are crucial, as there are some eateries that are successful without providing a great ambience.”
Food-wise, kosher restaurants are obviously limited by the laws of kashrut. Interestingly enough, though, according to folks like Dani Klein, the founder of blog and Instagram account Yeah That’s Kosher, abiding by the culinary guidelines might end up affecting the quality of service.
In fact, Jewish and non-Jewish critics and experts alike seem to agree that tight financial margins across the entire industry coupled with the higher cost of operating a kosher establishment are the main problems plaguing kosher restaurants.
“Kosher restaurants can’t be open 365 days a year—the number is probably closer to 200-and-something because of Shabbat and all the holidays,” explained Klein. “Right off the bat, then, they are losing almost 30% of the year.”
It is only logical, then, that to be financially viable, kosher restaurants have to earn more than similar non-kosher establishments during the days that they are fully operational. That increased daily earnings goal, which also leads to higher prices for diners, may be more than the average kosher restaurant could realistically contend with.
“Operating a restaurant alone is nearly impossible because, even if every seat is taken, there is a gap in how much you can actually earn and how much you have to spend to operate nicely,” said David Zaken, owner of kosher destination Paprika on Long Island. “With the money you make, you have to pay your workers, taxes, insurance, rent, and much more.”
Zaken clearly knows what he’s talking about: After managing an eponymous catering business in Manhattan for years, he and his wife, Roni, decided to move the operation less than an hour away to Great Neck, Long Island, where they now manage a brick-and-mortar space that’s wildly successful among kosher-keeping locals.
“In the culinary world, doing catering alone is hard, and operating a restaurant by itself is almost impossible, so you’re going to have to do both things together to survive,” he said, also talking about Paprika’s own business model. “Doing so as a kosher business makes your life even harder because you have to buy your meat and vegetables from kosher-certified companies, which are basically little mobs, as they can raise their prices however much they want, and you’re still obligated to purchase from them.” Non-kosher restaurants, he explains, can shop around more and therefore lower their overall costs.
In addition to buying kosher ingredients, restaurateurs like Zaken also have to pay for kosher-certification and a mashgiach (basically, a supervisor who will make sure all kitchen-related activities abide by kashrut laws). According to a 2016 Crain’s article, having two full-time mashgiachs on staff can cost upwards of $100,000 a year. To account for these additional expenditures, a lot of kosher eateries end up cutting corners in other aspects of the business, such as service, and, of course, raising the price of their dishes.
“The restaurants that don’t do catering just lower their costs in different ways to have something to take home at the end of the day,” said Zaken.
Add to it all the fact that finding waiters, chefs, and busboys willing not to work on Fridays and Saturdays—historically, the busiest and most tip-heavy days for a restaurant—automatically lessens the quality of the staff, and you’ve got yourself a pretty dire situation.
“Good workers are the hardest thing to find,” said Elan Kornblum, editor and publisher of Great Kosher Restaurants Magazine. “A lot of times, if the restaurant really wants to put out a great product, they are at the mercy of their staff. If you’re a waiter, though, you don’t want to not work Friday and Saturday but would rather be employed somewhere you can work every day—especially on a busy weekend. So, to find a non-Jewish waiter to work at a kosher restaurant is tough.”
The value of service is paramount across the industry as a whole, no matter customers’ diet-related preferences.
“The reason why we go to a restaurant is to feel valued,” said Hayler. “If you turn up at the door and nobody is there to greet you, that’s annoying. If, when you sit down, you have to wait long to be tended to, that’s annoying. If the staff is distracted or overstretched, it’s irritating. Achieving a service where none of these things happen is not trivial to do.”
Back to the actual food, Hayler also mentions a sort of gastronomic uniformity as a marker of success.
“If you look at some restaurant menus and they offer a combination of Indian, Chinese, and Thai, for example, then it’s not a coherent concept,” Hayler said about eateries in general. Although he strictly writes about treyf (non-kosher) businesses, his outlook touches upon another issue within the kosher world: menus that are eight pages long and include dishes that span a variety of food genres that don’t necessarily go together.
Although some more high-end eateries in, for example, Manhattan and Los Angeles, do dedicate themselves to single cuisines—French steakhouse Le Marais in New York is a prime example—a vast majority of Jewish-adjacent eateries serve Japanese sushi alongside Mexican tacos, Italian pizza, and Chinese hot-and-sour soup out of the same kitchen. The only two cuisines you likely won’t see side by side are French and Italian—the former heavy on the meat and the latter an ode to all things dairy, a duo automatically disqualified on kashrut grounds that prohibit consuming meat and dairy together.
But not all experts agree that culinary singularity should be prized above variety.
“Menus should be varied, and to be successful, they should appeal to a broad audience,” said Kornblum. “At the end of the day, a restaurant is a business, so it needs to have enough volume and customers to be successful.”
Despite the challenges of eating at kosher eateries, we return. Even in cities like New York, where kosher restaurants are abundant in number, strictly kosher customers are relatively forgiving: No matter how bad the food or the experience as a whole, the majority of consumers tend to go back to an eatery because, after all, there are only so many kosher ones around.
That, perhaps, might be one of the biggest problems within the industry: If diners don’t hold the various kitchens and staff members accountable, why should the businesses ever strive to do better?
Anna Rahmanan is a New York-based writer and editor.