As recently as a year ago, kosher restaurants were owned and operated by religious restaurateurs and chefs serving towns with heavily religious populations. They offered a standard menu and a middling dining experience.
But that’s quickly changing: Most of the new restaurants that have opened in Israel in the past year are kosher, and many veteran establishments are getting a kashrut certificate even in secular bastions like Tel Aviv, Haifa and Eilat. Celebrity chefs who once took pride in their non-kosher menus are choosing to switch to kashrut.
One prominent instance is the chef and television personality Moshe Segev, who recently launched a chain of kosher restaurants under his name, with the first two outlets in Netanya and Be’er Sheva. Another celebrity chef, Eyal Shani, last month took over a space in Tel Aviv’s Beit Asia, once used by a non-kosher restaurant, for a kosher establishment called Malka.
“There’s been an awakening among the religious public,” says Carmel Broder, a food consultant for the firm Takeway2. “They travel more, have gotten to see better restaurants and food and are fed up with bad service. They don’t want to be served non-dairy cream and margarine, but to eat creative food without compromising, just as they do in other things.”
Unlike other trends in the business, the trend towards kosher restaurants began outside of Israel's main urban centers and only recently reached Tel Aviv, prompting high-profile chefs to open kosher restaurants, Broder says
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Another factor that contributes to the kosher-restaurant phenomenon, she adds, is French-Jewish tourism; these tourists demand a better dining experience.
Yet another factor is the sorry state of Israel’s restaurant sector in general. Last year was one of the worst ever for restaurateurs in the last decade, particularly because the government imposed a tax on employing foreign workers. Turnover fell 0.8% from 2016 and the number of eateries dropped 1.5%, according to the Association of Restaurants and Cafes.
Idan Spivak, a media adviser for culinary businesses at Blender Communications, worries that the future of non-kosher restaurants looks bleak because the market they serve is shrinking.
In a tough market, many restaurateurs reason they can’t afford to ignore diners who keep kosher. Broder estimates that 70% of Israelis observe some form of kashrut and that growing vegetarianism is supporting interest in kosher dining.
“Kashrut has turned into a business option for many restaurant owners who want to address a bigger part of the population. It’s enough that person in a group keeps kosher, and that means the group can’t eat at a non-kosher restaurant,” Shai Berman, CEO of the Association of Restaurants and Cafes, told TheMarker.
That was the reasoning used by Itzik Hasson, who for 29 years served shellfish at his Dagim seafood restaurant in Herzilya and was open for business on Shabbat. Six months ago, he got a kashrut certificate.
“It was a business decision that I took after seeing I was looking for group booking for events and religious tourists who were looking for a kosher ‘chef’ restaurants without any success,” said Hasson. “Our weekend business was 30% to 35% of our turnover, and the turnover on weekdays has grown by tens of percent since we became kosher.”
On the balance, turnover at Dagim is about the same before and after the transition, but he and has his staff have to work fewer hours to achieve it because the restaurants is closed on Shabbat. “It opened up for us events like britot (circumcision ceremonies),” he says. “Everything is easier.”
In fact, operating a kosher restaurant is more expensive and more complicated – so all other things being equal, prices will be higher.
Broder estimated that ingredients cost about 20% more, especially for kosher meat. Operating costs are about 5% to 10% more because of supervision costs and because kashrut certificates also require that establishments close on the Sabbath and many holidays.
“All this together means prices at kosher restaurants are 10% to 39% higher than at non-kosher ones, depending on the level of kashrut,” says Broder.
Guy Shalev, who owns the Kitchen Bar in Netanya, details the cost involved when he made the switch to kashrut four years ago after a dozen years as a non-kosher establishment.
The actual switch cost between 20,000 and 30,000 shekels for a restaurant with 50 seats. Since then he has had to pay 3,000 shekels a month for a kashrut supervisor.
Shalev said that although his staffing costs had gone down, that didn’t make up for other higher costs, and all told, his menu is more expensive than it would have been if it weren’t kosher.