Four years ago, when Camilla Soberano became more observant, she took a close look at the kosher restaurant scene in Toronto. What she found kind of surprised her.
There were plenty of pizza and takeout joints, a few restaurants that offered shwarma and other Middle Eastern fare, but where was the kosher family restaurant with a broad menu offering items for the whole household? And, in a city with a Jewish population in the 200,000 range, she wondered why there weren’t more higher-end restaurants offering fine dining for the kosher crowd.
In response, Soberano launched a Facebook page called Kosher Restaurants in Toronto and Thornhill, which she hoped would provide friendly advice to restaurant operators and push them to enhance their marketing, while soliciting the wisdom of the crowd for possible solutions.
The page receives more than 29,000 views a week, testifying to the fact that there are plenty of people in Toronto with an interest in kosher restaurant fare.
At the same time, a Facebook page operated by cookbook author and food maven Norene Gilletz, called Norene’s Kitchen!, offers people the opportunity to discuss kosher food and restaurants, while a Facebook page called Speedy Meaty T.O.’s Kosher Guru, which is run by Shlomo Assayag, also provides a discussion forum about kosher dining in Toronto.
It’s clear that kosher dining interests Toronto consumers, while in Montreal, the restaurant scene is perhaps even more vibrant.
According to Rabbi Saul Emanuel, executive director of MK – Canada’s Kosher Certifier, one of the country’s larger kosher certification organizations, about 20 Montreal-area restaurants come under MK’s supervision. Add a few more supervised by other rabbinical authorities and you have plenty of options for the dining public.
In the Greater Toronto Area, which has nearly three times the Jewish population of Montreal, there are 48 restaurants under the kashrut supervision of The Kashruth Council of Canada (COR).
That number has been growing steadily, said Richard Rabkin, COR’s managing director. In the 1970s, there were only six kosher restaurants under the agency’s supervision. In 2011, the number had risen to 44 and the number has grown by about one per year.
“Some people may have a perception that many restaurants in Toronto are closing, but the truth is that restaurants open and close, but the trend line is upwards,” he said.
“In my opinion, 48 restaurants is a thriving kosher scene. I come from Vancouver originally, where we had three restaurants. So compared to Vancouver, Toronto is definitely a scene. Compared to New York, Miami or L.A., probably not. But there are also significant differences in those cities, in terms of size of the Jewish population and the amount of tourists who visit the city who eat most of their meals out.
“Tourism is an important point. I went to Miami about five years ago with my wife for four days and we ate out lunch and dinner each day – eight times. Unfortunately, I don’t get to take my wife out nearly as often at home, but if your city is a tourist destination, which I am not sure if Toronto is, then you have an atmosphere where people are going out to eat much more often.”
For his part, Rabbi Emanuel believes that Montreal has a unique food culture. “People enjoy going out,” he said. “If you have a constant standard and the service is good and the restaurant makes every application to make sure it works well, people will return.”
Some Montreal restaurants, like Yakimono and Exception, have been around for years. Rabbi Emanuel said that Yakimono “is extremely popular. It’s always full, always supported.”
Saizen Sushi is a relative newcomer to the scene, but it too is “well supported,” he said.
Joseph Bodokh, who co-owns Saizen Sushi, has operated the restaurant for only a couple of years, but he’s been in the restaurant and catering business for quite some time.
Saizen, a mid-priced restaurant, offers fish entrées, Asian noodles dishes, sushi, salads and other dishes. Most of the restaurant’s clientele is Jewish – perhaps as high as 95 per cent, he said.
“There is a nice market and my customers are very loyal,” he said. “Some order every week. I have some customers who come in two or three times a week.
“You don’t need more. If you have customers like that, you can’t get better than that.”
Keeping the price reasonable and the menu options plentiful is important for customer retention, he said. If a restaurant is too pricey and appeals to customers who are willing to splurge only when they celebrate simchahs and perhaps one or two other times a year, staying afloat can be tough.
Instead, he relies “on repeat business.”
Bodokh believes there is a distinct difference in the eating habits of Toronto and Montreal Jews. He knows because he gets plenty of Torontonians in his restaurant who are visiting Montreal.
“My feedback from them, what they tell me, is that in Toronto, the restaurants are not that good, and they were amazed when they ate here,” he said.
Kosher cookbook author and CJN columnist Norene Gilletz believes the kosher restaurant scene in Toronto and Montreal mirrors the wider dining world. “Montreal has really good restaurants. Toronto is OK,” she said, referring to non-kosher eateries. “They have a slightly more refined taste, I think.”
Soberano agrees that there’s room in the Toronto market for higher-end, good-quality restaurants. But at the same time, she says that “there is a huge lack of support from the community. The community does not support kosher restaurants. They’re looking for a slice-and-bite” establishment, a pizza and fries joint.
There is certainly a demand for that sort of restaurant, but why not give more business to higher-end establishments, she asked.
Soberano suggests that kosher restaurant operators have to do a better job of marketing their product, making full use of social media and offering temporary “pop-ups” to attract a wider clientele.
Demographics may be a hurdle that kosher restaurants need to overcome, in order to succeed. Observant Jews have large families and are often strapped for cash after paying day school tuitions and the higher cost of kosher food. “When people go out, they have to decide where to spend their hard earned money,” Soberano said.
That often means that lower-cost pizza and burger restaurants win out over higher-priced sit down venues.
Assayag, who operated his own restaurant in Toronto, Wasabis, 17 years ago, hopes his Facebook group will promote a dining out culture. Already some 9,000 “Toronto foodies” belong to the group and they are encouraged to post photos of attractive dishes they’ve enjoyed, as well as report on the cost of dining out and offer suggestions about improving the kosher food scene.
The idea is that if people “see new and different dishes that look great, then people will go out and try,” he said.
Assayag acknowledges that kosher restaurants are often pricier than the non-kosher equivalent, as kosher inputs are usually costlier than non-kosher ones. Nevertheless, some have withstood the test of time. The Chicken Nest on Bathurst Street, for instance, is likely the oldest kosher restaurant in Toronto, having been around for about 25 years. But other longstanding kosher institutions, like Marky’s and Dairy Treats, have closed in recent years.
“People miss them,” he said.
Erez Karp, whose family owned and operated Marky’s, told Munchies, VICE’s food website, that it closed because “it just wasn’t economically viable. We tried to cut back costs, but the price of kosher meat is too high and we noticed Orthodox families spending a lot of money on real estate to have homes closer to their synagogues.…And they were spending a lot on education for their children.”
Shlomo Esses, owner of Cafe Sheli, Bistro Grande and Sheli BFC, has seen many ups and downs in the kosher restaurant business. While the three Toronto-area restaurants he owns are doing fine, he’s closed three others – Dairy Treats, Miami Grill, which had operated for 15 years, and the Oasis Cafe, which was in business 16 years. Rising lease costs prompted the closures, he said.
“The secret to being a restaurateur is having persistence,” he said. “A lot of people get into the restaurant business and think it will be an overnight success.”
A key component of longevity is to know your customers, he continued.
He started Dairy Treats in 1984, at a time when there were few restaurants serving the kosher-consuming public. He then opened the Miami Grill.
“At the time, there were a couple of falafel places and maybe a couple of meat restaurants,” he recalled.
He found it tough making inroads selling kosher fare.
“It wasn’t as popular. Kosher restaurants have a little bit of a stigma. But the kosher market has grown,” he said.
That stigma is hard to pin down, but Esses believes people erroneously think that kosher food is not as good as the alternative, is too pricey and that the service in kosher restaurants is lacking.
“Over the years, that’s changing. People are seeing more sophistication in building a restaurant. They’re spending more money on design and the menu has come a long way. It’s no more chicken soup and matzah balls,” he said.
Still, it’s hard for proprietors to make ends meet, Esses said. Kosher restaurants are also at a competitive disadvantage because they close more frequently, due to the observance of Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, than non-kosher establishments, which themselves suffer from a high failure rate. The Friday night and Saturday business that is so important for non-kosher establishments is lost to kosher proprietors.
When rents are high and income restricted by virtue of the number of days the place is closed for business, running a kosher restaurant becomes a real challenge, he said.
Higher-end meat restaurants, which may pay substantial rent and higher food costs, make it a fine balancing act to stay in business.
What’s more, unlike the situation in Montreal, or other cities like New York and Miami, where going out to eat late is part of the culture, Toronto restaurants shut down around 9:00. All that makes it a difficult “math question” to operate a restaurant successfully, Esses said.
“Some people think it’s a dream to open a restaurant. It’s one of the hardest jobs in the world. It’s tedious and detail oriented.”
Getting the right staff and retaining them is a priority and many start-ups are prone to mismanagement and poor financing. Even when they get things right, “the returns are not huge,” Esses said.
Bodokh said that Montrealers have also seen kosher restaurants come and go. He thinks that a lot of the people who start restaurants don’t know enough about the business.
“Most who open restaurants are not cooks and that’s most of the problem. They don’t analyze the market well – what people want and not what you think is good for them,” he said.
Soberano believes that even if a restaurant has a great concept, it won’t succeed unless it meets its customers’ needs. And that means better quality, improved service and an attractive menu presentation.
“If they realize they can create a good customer experience, connect with them and listen to their feedback, that would help,” she said.
Assayag said that people will find higher-end places in Montreal. Unlike the situation in Toronto, many non-observant Jews frequent those establishments. In Quebec, he said, “there seems to be a culture of going out,” and non-religious Jews have no problem eating at kosher eateries.
In Toronto, however, “people have the misconception that kosher restaurants are not up to standards. If they give it a shot, they’ll see a lot of good kosher restaurants to choose from,” Assayag said