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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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