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Sabra is dead. Long live Daneli’s.

October 25, 2009 – 11:31 am28 Comments

sabra_closed_2By David Werdiger

I preferred Sabra before they switched from their previous kosher authority to their most recent one – their chips were just delicious. My friend who works in the kosher industry told me they were fried in oil that contained tallow, which is animal fat, and therefore not kosher. As a kosher consumer, I place a degree of trust in the supervising authority, so that if the food consumed turns out not to be kosher, it is on their heads, not mine. That said, some authorities are more trustworthy than others. Let’s leave that issue for another article …

Alas, Sabra has recently closed its doors, and the owner has moved (back) to Israel. But even as one star fades, another is born. Dan and Eli Grosberg have opened Daneli’s to rave reviews. Sam Lipski ought to try their pastrami on rye, which is a truly authentic kosher antipodean interpretation of the deli classic.

We all complain about the kosher eating options here in Melbourne. Restaurants come and go like the wind; there aren’t enough of them; they are too expensive; they aren’t kept clean. Why is this? And more importantly, what can be done about it?

On the other side of the counter, many restaurateurs are serial complainers too! Kosher meat is so expensive; I have to bear the cost of a supervisor; my hours are restricted by Shabbat; the Kosher authority won’t let me do this or that. Some even have the audacity to keep telling you how good their restaurant is!

The meat issue is certainly a valid one: kosher meat is three to four times more expensive than non-kosher. There are also lots of other ingredients that may have a slightly higher cost.

Restaurants typically run gross margins of 70-80%. This means that, for example, the ingredients in a $10 meal actually cost the restaurant just $2-3. The major operating cost is staff: the people in the kitchen who prepare and cook the food, and the waiting staff who directly look after the patrons.

For a kosher meat restaurant, if your ingredient costs (taking an average across all the ingredients – not just the meat) are double or triple, this makes a huge dent in margins. Either you put up your prices, or struggle to make a profit.

Kosher restaurants can’t open on Shabbat, so take at least another 15% off revenues, but rent still has to be paid. This is allegedly the reason the proposed Glicks at Chadstone was knocked back.

But on the other hand …

How much price elasticity of demand really is there in the kosher food market? To what extent will people simply consider alternatives because of the cost of kosher restaurants? I don’t know. Perhaps they should have included some questions about this in the recent community survey?

I recall that the prices at Park Grill were quite high, yet their serving sizes were very generous, and they were packed night after night. My Flame is also on the expensive side, and the place is rocking every time I go there. A Daneli’s burger will set you back $13.95 but close your eyes and you could be at Pico Kosher Deli or at the New York icon where fast food is good food.

Non-Jewish friends and associates are always surprised to hear of the paucity of kosher eating options in Melbourne and Sydney. There are over 2 million Jews in New York – if 10% of them only eat kosher, that translates to a market size of at least 200,000. The Shamash kosher restaurant database found over 600 restaurants in the state. In Melbourne there are about 50,000 Jews, and maybe 5,000 who keep kosher. On a pro-rata basis, we are probably doing quite well for kosher restaurants.

To me, the real problem is that the people who choose to open a restaurant here do it with little or no expertise or experience. How many of them have had some formal training at a school like William Angliss? Or done an apprenticeship at a good restaurant in Israel, New York, Los Angeles, or Paris? There seems to be an attitude of “if you build it, he will come” amongst some proprietors. Customers should never be taken for granted, and should not feel obliged to “support” a commercial venture.

It comes down to a very simple principle: The definition of a good kosher restaurant is a good restaurant … that just happens to be kosher.

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28 Comments »

  • defensa says:

    You hit the nail on the head with the economics of the problem. With the cost of inputs so high, margins are necessarily small, and with such a small consumer base who exclusively eat kosher there is a limited demand. It would seem an intractable problem.

    I admit to being almost totally ignorant as to the complexities and costs involved in producing kosher meat. But, and this is really my question, is the cost justified or are kosher consumers being ripped off?

    And again, confessing a relative ignorance to the Jewish legal issues, how crucial is the presence of these supervisors to the “kosher-ness” of the place? Is a system similar to Public Health Inspectors who make random occasional visits not acceptable within the boundaries of Kosher law? Is an “honour-system” totally out of the question?

  • frosh says:

    Firstly, let me say that I will miss Sabra – delicious felafel!

    With regard to the issue of pricing, even if we accept that the price of kosher meat is not easily reducible, as someone who doesn’t eat fleish, I find it dissappointing that kosher fish/vegetarian food is still typically a lot more expensive than its non-hechsher equivalent.

    Furthermore, the hygiene level in some kosher establishments leaves a lot to be desired. I would think that good hygiene ought to be a criteria for retaining a hechsher from the kshrut authorities.

  • Jon says:

    I agree with your comment that a good kosher restaurant is a restaurant that happens to be kosher.

    I think for kosher places to really survive, they can’t really simply rely on solely kosher consumers, and to do that the food and service has to be good. The kosher market alone is I think too small. Many religious families with a number of children are probably unable to afford to go to a kosher place too often as it is too expensive, so that diminishes the market further.

  • Nadine says:

    I will miss sabra. I recently tried laffa and was not impressed my felafel was too watery. Just terrible. But respect is due fir those who put themselves out there and give the kosher game a try. It’s difficult for sure.

  • eli says:

    The owner of Sabra went back to Israel for personal reasons,which is a loss for us who enjoyed his food,but I believe a step forward for him.

    As to the costs of kosher food, when it comes to meat, the problem stems from the fact that there is a monopoly of supply. There is only one chicken supplier and two meat suppliers in Melbourne.

    Kosher restaurant owners pay only $1.00 less a Kilo than the retail price. There is no competition and the prices between the two suppliers are identical. Where is Samuels when you need him!

    The service and cleaniness of most of the kosher establishments is appaling and in the real world where they would have to compete with many others they would have closed down years ago.

    But with a captured audience with no alternative they can behave as they wish,and they do. David is correct that nearly all have no experience in retail food and at best were “cooks” in the army.

    Servings have been to date,with some exceptions,unimaginative and small bordering on bare. Order a bagel with salmon and cheese and that’s all you will get, plonked in front of you, as if you you should be grateful of being served. No compliment of a little greenery or some garnish on the plate, and that will be $7.50 thanks..oh you wanted a knife and fork as well!

    Lets not talk about the quality of the coffee..Barista…oh i never new that was a Jewish name…are you new in town?

    Try and pay with a credit card. Sorry my Israeli workers cant get paid with plastic, their visa’s wont allow it.

    I recently was told by one worker that if i wanted to be served hot food (eggs on a bagel) i would have to wait at least 20 mins. No the establishment was not full, but why put on more workers. I promptly told the owner that if intends to open for business he should be open for BUSINESS, and promptly left.

    We who have made the choice to keep kosher are strangled by monopoly,nonchalant owners and a multitude of Kashrut authorities.

    If the aim is to encourage many more Jews to keep Kosher then the current geography needs an overhaul. From pricing to service. But while the current owners, retail and wholesale,continue to profit from a closed shop,sanctioned by the authorities, and we as the consumers are trapped, nothing much will change.

  • ariel says:

    I was in NY last year and noticed that even though kosher eateries cost slightly more than others, they still manage to pull a diverse clientele.

    For example, Jerusalem 2 Pizza in Manhattan (which made me ill and was subsequently raided by the Health Department for not the first time it seems) still attracts New Yorkers of all shades: white, black, hispanic, Jewish, etc. On top of this, they still manage to make a living when operating only 5.5 days a week or less.

    Another example is the Glatt Kosher SUBWAY near Wall St. I spoke with the proprietor who told me that he gets just as many non-Jews as Jews walking in because they see the SUBWAY logo and order as usual because of convenience. This, even though glatt SUBWAY costs about $1.50 more per sandwich and it’s solely fleishig, so no “roast beef and melted cheese” subs. He does not complain about having to close on Shabbat; he just does all his calculations based on a 6-day week instead of 7 days.

    I have seen many non-Jews walk into a perfectly good kosher eatery in Bondi (Sydney), look around at the kippot and walk out. Although I have never asked them, their body language suggests that they feel unwelcome in such an establishment (or perhaps even not permitted). Perhaps a panacea to this would be for kosher eateries to advertise in the general press rather than just in the Jewish community…

    One final thing: One particular kosher place in Sydney closes its doors before 8:30pm. I find this ridiculous considering the cafes all around it operate until well after 10pm. The owner told me “I can’t afford to keep my staff on for an extra 2hrs on the off chance that you and your friends are hungry at 9:30pm.”
    Two other eateries however are open until 10-11pm and I’m sure they do very well with the young adult crowd.

  • rachsd says:

    Jon,

    I wonder if there are some differences between Melbourne and Sydney regarding your point that:

    “I think for kosher places to really survive, they can’t really simply rely on solely kosher consumers, and to do that the food and service has to be good.”

    As a general rule, I have found kosher restaurants in Sydney to be more similar to non-kosher restaurants in price and quality than in Melbourne, which makes me thinks that in Melbourne restaurants are still trying to cater exclusively to kosher consumers. Any thoughts on this?

  • Oliver Shalom says:

    David, this is one topic that regularly gets brought out whenever dining with friends.

    Sabra was delicious, and a rare commodity in this community, (those of you with heart conditions are advised to now look away) provided VALUE FOR MONEY.

    Many here in Melbourne get the feeling that whever we go to dine out for fleish amongst the kosher restaurants here, we are expected to walk in and immediately “bend over” to get not much meat for way too much money.

    One eatery with an Asian flavour has no shame in charging $$$ for a plastic container filled to the brim with rice or noodles, and then a couple of slivers of meat and whatever vegetable was on special at the market (usually broccoli, much to my dissapointment). Don’t call it “Spicy beef” when it’s really “cheap rice with a hint of beef”.

    You are correct when you say that many Melbourne kosher restaurant owners seem to have little or no professional restaurant experience, let alone training in the field. Many seem to view it as a “get rich quick” opportunity and choose to go for the big profit per plate from the start, rather than make the profit over time by charging at a more reasonable level and making it on the volume of patronage.

    Kosher consumers are a wary bunch – you can’t take advantage of us for too long before word gets around and people stop dining at an establishment.

    I recently took my family to one of the new eateries that is more built for take-away than dine-in. My wife, kids, and guests sat down whilst I ordered at the counter. I explained the kids menu option to the kids, and they agreed (schnitzel burger and chips). Whilst confirming with my wife in front of the staff member behind the counter, he reached up and wiped the price off the blackboard. When I went to pay after the meal, he claimed there was a new, higher price today, and charged me accordingly, even though his creative wiping meant that the item had no price listed next to it. I didn’t want to argue in front of other patrons, but I now choose to dine anywhere but there.

    Kosher restauranters need to learn, perhaps the hard way, that if you treat the customer like a parton and not some poor schmuck ready to be fleeced, then they will keep returning and keep you in business.

  • defensa,

    The kosher laws regarding meat require full-time supervision. For non-meat, random checks are sufficient. A few years ago Rabbi Zaichik of Mizrachi promoted the view that any commercial food provider must have supervision by an official kosher authority. I fully agree with this – when money is involved, an honour system is not sufficient (no matter how frum or trustworthy you think the owner is). Just ask the residents of Monsey.

    ariel,

    I also find it outrageous that an eatery closes before 8:30pm. While I enjoy their product, their policies and attitude to their customers really annoy me. The only way to fix this is through competition – it has an amazing effect on businesses.

    Oliver Shalom,

    You raise a very good point: because the market is small and we all talk about eateries, reputations are very quickly tarnished through bad experiences like yours. This makes for quite an unforgiving market. There just aren’t enough places for us to be able to say “I’m not eating there again!” too often.

  • ra says:

    Like many of the others who have posted here, I will miss Sabra too.

    Regarding Oliver’s comment that “if you treat the customer like a parton and not some poor schmuck ready to be fleeced, then they will keep returning and keep you in business” I generally agree.

    But I don’t think that’s the principal reason it is so hard to sustain a viable kosher restaurant in Melbourne. The main reason (as far as I can judge) is the relatively small market. For food businesses to survive, they need a large volume of sales. Large sales volumes require a large potential or present market. Expecting to get rich by charging huge mark ups on every meal is a sure-fire way to discourage customers.

    In Melbourne, there isn’t a large enough market of people demanding multiple kosher restaurants. Sure, a few have done relatively well over the years, but it is a difficult industry.

    There are plenty of non-kosher restaurants that treat their customers very poorly, yet maintain a steady stream of willing ‘schmucks’. There are two reasons they can survive: the first is because the size of the potential market is far larger. The second is because they earn the majority of their profits from alcohol sales. Indeed alcohol sales effectively subsidise the cost of the food in many restaurants.

    David, I think you are on to something when you say “the definition of a good kosher restaurant is a good restaurant … that just happens to be kosher.” Too many kosher restaurants assume they have to serve “Jewish” food to be successful – there is no such requirement. The importnat thing is that the restaurant gets it right, regardless of what food it serves.

  • eli says:

    I think many of you are missing an important ingredient (pun unintended).As i stated earlier apart from the obvious problems with the retail side of kosher eateries, the fact that those who supply the raw materials esp in the meat area are a closed shop. They charge only slightly less per kilo then you or I would pay for the meat at retail. There is no alternative! When you are faced with a monopoly the opportunity to charge reasonable prices does not exist.
    The kosher butchers are protected. Even chickens from Sydney which were at one stage available in Melbourne, are now prevented form being sold, because they are slightly cheaper.

    Three kosher butchers all charging the same per killo, ONE provider of chickens for all of Melbourne. Smells to me!

    The truth be known there is too much money tied up in keeping the system as it is. As a consequence the retailers and the kosher consumer are paying the price for greed.

  • frosh says:

    “For non-meat, random checks are sufficient.”

    David, does this open the door for kosher vegetarian restaurants staffed and owned by non-Jews that are open on Shabbat? They would presumably deemed to be non-kosher on Shabbat, but kosher the other 6 days a week etc.

    You know where I’m going with this :-)

  • Frosh,

    Now you’re pushing my boundaries as a halachic authority. I have heard of places that are kosher and open on Shabbat (like the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf near the Jewish centre in Singapore). The decision would probably be made on a case-by-case basis.

    The first step is for one of these places to contact a kosher authority and talk to them!

  • ariel says:

    What about a reliable shtar mecher?

  • Henry Herzog says:

    Now Manchinos Pizza place in Balaclava Road made the best pizza in town, it was kosher and the same price as anywhere else. but they are gone, why? And what’s wrong with that felafel place in Kooyong Road which also makes a very nice pizza. More vegitarian places I say, being one, myself. By really, cleanliness is a big issue and must not be ignored. I mean, you don’t want to walk into a kosher place and see the person behind the counter picking their nose, but it does happen

  • Oliver Shalom says:

    Henry, nose picking staff are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Melbourne kosher eateries.

    Why are the tables so often sticky?
    Why is there still food and plates left on the tables from patrons now long-gone?
    Why hasn’t the floor been swept and mopped in a week, if not longer?

    I felt embarassed when I met with a non-Jewish client for coffee in one such venue.

    Non-kosher patrons wouldn’t put up with it in a non-kosher cafe/restaurant, yet kosher patrons do becuase of the limited number of choices that we have. Do we have to lower our standards so much? Or are we being taken advantage of?

    One would assume that “kosher” implies “clean”, however this is clearly not the case in so many establishments.

    Also, where there is a chain of kosher cafes/bakeries, why can’t the price for a prepared bagel be the same at each store? I dare you to do the rounds of them, and collect the pricing of a cheese and tomato bagel. It’s pot luck what I’ll be charged each time I go in.

  • Henry Herzog says:

    My observation of nose picking behind the counter was not at Sabra, I liked the place. And truth be known, I got the owner to go kosher; I hope that didn’t cause its demise. Also, I found the staff at Sabra friendly and pretty easy going. But what and how you could deviate from the existing menu was exceedingly rigid. I am working on Raffi at Danny and Joe’s to go kosher, but I could do with a bit of help.

  • Streimelah says:

    David, you cannot state that Sabra used treife oil. You have no proof and are only repeating hearsay. This is rechilis and besmirches the owner, Yuval, whom I knew to be a very fine Yid. Yuval was not frum when he opened Sabra as a non-kosher eatery. After becoming frum he agonised over the decision to transform Sabra to kosher. He was uncertain if the Jewish community would support him and worried he would go out of business. But eventually Sabra went kosher and survived. Yuval passed a very big nisoyan. Do not besmirch his reputation, especially since unless he is reading this blog in Israel (highly unlikely), he is not here to defend himself. I hope you will think about this and retract your allegation.

  • Streimelah,

    I’m not making any determination regarding the kashrus or otherwise of Sabra under its previous hashgacha, and certainly not alleging that the owner Yuval did anything wrong. Whether the oil they used contained tallow or not is indeed hearsay. No matter what the oil included, the issue of whether the oil was kosher or not is the responsibility of the hashgacha, and if anything speaks to its reputation, rather than that of Sabra’s owner. It’s quite possible that the oil was halachically acceptable to one hashgacha, and not to another. There are no shortage of opinions regarding the laws of kashrut, and this happens all the time.

    I do know that the oil changed when the hashgacha did; Yuval confirmed this for me at the time. I can also confirm that the chips weren’t as good as a result! :)

    You are quite right – Yuval ought be highly commended for taking a leap and making the place kosher. Perhaps other Jewish owners of non-kosher restaurants can take a leaf from his book?

  • frosh says:

    Hi David,

    I am currently in Rome, and have had the pleasure of seeing all the very nice kosher restaurants and cafes here.  And this in a community less than a third the size of the JC in Melbourne.

     

    In particular, I can highly recommend a milchig restaurant called Yotvata (not a franchise of its namesake in Tel Aviv).  Try the Fettucine alla Scoglio.

  • meir rabi says:

    Shalom Everyone,

    Why has no one made mention of Soho Kosher Sushi on Carlisle Street.

    Kosher VeYosher, clean, friendly, tasty and I am teaching them to speak Yiddish

  • fresser says:

    Zavdiel in Kooyong is generally pretty good. Tasty felafel and pizza and friendly staff
    Price – OK – but nothing special

    Danielli – not bad

    Katzy in Sydney – very tasty but not cheap for such a type of shop

    Eshel in Glen Eira rd – huge variety on thursady and friday – but no eating in. tasty and reasonable price

    savion in sydney – could do with a total refresher

  • frosh says:

    According to someone on my Facebook feed, My Flame has bit the dust.

    I actually ate there last night, and thought it was weird that it was a set menu. Even more weird, was that when we asked the waiter (manager) if the wine was sweet or dry, he replied: “Either you’ll like it or you won’t” – I guess he has a point, as it was part of the set menu…

    Oh well, perhaps we can publish a post-mortem if someone wishes to write one.

  • Yes indeed … they are closing at the end of next week. They have sold that place as it was no longer profitable, and the owners are concentrating on their other venues, including the new Nogga.

    Their “degustation” (fancy for set menu) was marketed as a “birthday special”, although perhaps “yahrzeit” would be more appropriate. We were there with some friends, and were able to order a bottle of wine as well. The food was delicious as usual; they will certainly be missed.

  • ariel says:

    Pita mix in Sydney is the way to go if you’re up here. Savion is sooo last decade (although I ate there the other night and it hit the spot)

  • Perry Zamek says:

    OK, so why don’t you all come to visit us here at home (Eretz Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael, Israel) – plenty of kosher restaurants in Jerusalem (OK, in Tel Aviv you have to be a little more careful), and around the country. Prices – from low to very high. Quality – from poor to very high. Kashrut supervision – from poor to very mehadrin+.
    Or buy stuff at the supermarket, and take it home to cook. (And yes, you have to watch out for fake hechsher markings, even in Israel).
    On the other hand, my wife and I will be in Melbourne in August – so where’s a good kosher place to eat?

  • frosh says:

    Hi Perry,

     

    I have personally found Amalya (milchig) to have nice food, pleasant service, and  easonable prices. However it is generally only open during the day, as well as Saturday night.

     

  • Ilana Leeds says:

    B’H

    Amalya’s is open now on Sunday and Thursday nights except when it is yom Tov of course.
    They serve gluten free foods and have very tasty milchig and parve meals. The young Israeli couple that own it, she is a Chinese Medicine Practitioner – and she is starting a health retreat upstairs for pedicure, manicure and facials with a host of other treatments like accupuncture, cupping and deep tissue massage (for women only)also they plan to run some Yoga classes for the women and a class that is men only with a male instructor in the future. The lady who will teach the woman is the male instructor’s wife.
    The place is good value and they know how to make coffee. Some places definitely do not, and I am not going to mention names here. We all know, those of us who recognise what good coffee is, some may not, so go to Amalya’s and find out what a good latte can taste like.
    Yifat designs and cooks healthy and well balanced meals. Her husband Shuki is a trained chef and he knows how to use a coffee machine.
    Nogga’s is another recent addition to the Melbourne Kosher food scene but quite frankly while the coffee is ok, for plebs like me, it is expensive, way too!
    I know the cost of Kosher meat is high, but they do not serve meat, soo..Beitai’avon!

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