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‘This is a double whammy’ – Winnipeg loses its two private kosher restaurants

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The BerMax Caffè + Bistro in Winnipeg.

Citing a lack of community support, Winnipeg’s two privately owned kosher restaurants have independently chosen to drop their kosher certification.

BerMax Caffè + Bistro – which opened for business under the auspices of Rabbi Avraham Altein, the city’s chief Lubavitch rabbi, four years ago – withdrew from kosher supervision right after Rosh Hashanah.

Likewise, Desserts Plus – which was operating under the supervision of Rabbi Yossi Benarroch, the spiritual leader of Adas Yeshurun Herzlia, Winnipeg’s main Orthodox synagogue, on behalf of the Orthodox Union – withdrew on Nov. 1.

A survey of kosher Winnipeggers has elicited reactions of sadness and disappointment. “This is a double whammy,” says Michael Eskin. The longtime cantor and food science professor at the University of Manitoba says that he is disappointed that there wasn’t more community support for the two ventures.

READ: KOSHER DINING – MONTREAL AND TORONTO OFFER DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES

High school teacher Monica Chochinov, who has a large family, says that “when we heard that kosher restaurants were opening here, we thought that that was a sign that the community was changing and that perhaps support for kashrut was growing.”

For her, the two restaurants no longer being kosher is “really sad for the community.”

This sentiment is shared by the Behrendt and Reiss families, the owners of BerMax and Desserts Plus, respectively.

Sisters Lisa and Pam Reiss – who operate Desserts Plus – note that it wasn’t so much the higher cost of kosher ingredients, but rather the lack of support from the community that led to their decision to make the change.

Just Desserts in Winnipeg.

“It was a hard decision,” says Lisa Reiss. “We have been going round and round on this. The final nail in the coffin was when one of our communal organizations chose to have an event at a non-kosher location. We weren’t even asked about hosting the event.”

Pam adds that many people who may keep kosher at home will eat out at non-kosher restaurants. “We get requests from a number of people to provide kosher catering for one event a year, or (who) may come in for the occasional grocery item from our shelf – but that’s not enough to keep us in business as a kosher restaurant,” she says.

“We are located in a commercial-industrial area and we are getting a lot of corporate requests for our catering services. If we have to use kosher meat, we have a hard time competing on price and these clients don’t care if the product is kosher, as long as the food is good.”

Desserts Plus actually has a long history in Winnipeg. The business was started by Lisa and Pam Reiss’s parents, Ed and Barbara, as a kosher catering business more than 40 years ago in north Winnipeg. They subsequently opened a restaurant to compliment the catering business.

It was a hard decision.
– Lisa Reiss

Fifteen years ago, they relocated to south Winnipeg, where they did their catering out of a grocery store that specializes in kosher products. A couple of years ago, Ed and Barbara Reiss closed the business. Pam and Lisa Reiss revived it just 18 months ago as a kosher restaurant, grocer and caterer.

The sisters say that they will continue to offer kosher catering under Rabbi Benarroch’s supervision.

The Behrendt family operates a millwright plant north of Winnipeg. They opened BerMax Caffè + Bistro as an adjunct to a new showroom that they opened in the same development. The BerMax Facebook page says that “Our menu will remain as is, but now we will be open seven days a week with extended hours and larger cocktail/wine menu.”

According to Bernie Bellan, writing in the Jewish Post & News, the decision to abandon kashrut came about as a result of the business having to remain closed for Shabbat, as well as the cost of using kosher foods.

Winnipeg’s kosher community and visitors who want to eat out are once again left with Shmoozer’s Restaurant in the Asper Jewish Community Campus, weekday lunches served at the Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre and the small cafeteria in the Simkin Centre.

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