SAN FRANCISCO – Every morning, the finest fresh fish and seafood pass through the main branch of Royal Hawaiian Seafood in south San Francisco on their way to California’s most exclusive restaurants and hotels.
On one wall, each client is represented by a small magnet. The staff points with pride to the one denoting Thomas Keller’s acclaimed restaurant, French Laundry, as well as a number of magnets representing other Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury hotels. In its 25 years of operation, Royal Hawaiian Seafood has become the local standard for excellent fish and seafood, and has also come to stand for values like sustainability, marine ecology and environmental protection. But it isn’t exactly where you’d expect to find a rabbi’s office.
But these days, a young rabbi, Alex Shandrovsky, has also been coming here every morning. Amid all the seafood and mounds of fish, he has carved out a sterile and kosher work space. For the past several months, this has been the headquarters of L’Chaim Sushi – San Francisco’s first kosher sushi.
What’s most astounding about the story is this company’s dizzying success: In just three months, it has become one of the most popular and talked-about businesses in the area and is being mentioned in every local food column – and not just as some sort of colorful esoterica. With a client list that includes Google and other high-tech companies that certainly aren’t known for compromising on quality, L’Chaim Sushi is much more than a gimmick. What began as an attempt to find kosher food that would be quick and easy to serve at Judaism classes has become a thriving business with global ambitions, and a solid agenda that combines Jewish values with principles of sustainability.
Shandrovsky, 27, was born in Russia to a secular Jewish family. The family moved to San Francisco when he was nine, and that’s where he first was exposed to Japanese cuisine.
“I grew up in a secular home and didn’t keep kosher until I was in high school,” he says. “San Francisco has some of the best sushi in the world, and I became addicted to it. My favorite was sushi with octopus, but I don’t eat that anymore.”
In high school, he began to get more interested in Judaism. He was accepted to college but never went: Instead he decided to use a scholarship he'd received to travel to Israel, and began studying at Yeshiva Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. He ended up staying for six years, was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, got married and had two children.
“I saw that the best way to change the world is through education, so I made up my mind that that’s what I would do. I always wanted to change the world,” he says.
Shandrovsky and his family returned to San Francisco a year ago, when he was offered a position with the Jewish Study Network, an organization that promotes Jewish education in northern California.
“I came to teach Judaism classes and bring Jews closer to Judaism, but I saw early on that there was a problem: There was no suitable food. I’d come to the homes of students, many of whom didn’t keep kosher. Some would buy kosher food for me beforehand, but it was always a little uncomfortable ... I saw there wasn’t enough kosher food available that could be easily served, and that would also be good for parties and other events. Israeli food like shawarma or falafel isn’t well-suited for parties. It’s hard to serve and you have to always make sure it’s hot, otherwise it doesn’t taste good.”
This turned out to be an excellent excuse for Shandrovsky to return to his old addiction from his pre-religious days: He decided to prepare kosher sushi meals for his students. Through Craigslist, he found a young Japanese chef and invited him to the Adath Israel Synagogue in San Francisco where mounds of kosher fish awaited. The chef rolled the sushi, while Shandrovsky examined all the ingredients and supervised the preparation. The rolls were declared kosher and were served to the rabbi’s students. At first Shandrovksy had no commercial aspirations, but once you start the sushi rolling ...
“I’m a rabbi. I came to teach Judaism, not to sell sushi,” he says now. “But after the first event, there was a very big demand. It all started with word-of-mouth. Some students wanted to place orders for take-out. Jewish organizations wanted kosher sushi for their events. We started making sushi a few times a week and selling it to whoever had ordered it ahead of time, but it wasn’t very organized. People saw that sushi was perfect for parties. It’s easy to serve, you don’t need to warm it up, and it’s fun and tasty.”
The great boon to L’Chaim Sushi, as is so often the case in the San Francisco area, came from the high-tech companies of Silicon Valley, which started to hear about the kosher sushi.
“A lot of my students are people from high-tech who keep kosher, and through them connections were made with the big high-tech companies, which started ordering from us regularly,” he explains.
When the first order came in from Google, which wanted to cater to its Jewish employees, Shandrovsky realized his business couldn’t keep going on a fly-by-night basis.
Google goes gaga
When Google said it was interested in placing a standing order, Shandrovsky had to comply with its strict demand that the fish come from suppliers committed to sustainability and environmental preservation. He then approached Casson Trenor, owner of Tataki Sushi in San Francisco, known as the first American sushi restaurant devoted to sustainable dining. Trenor, who is Jewish, was enthusiastic about the idea and referred Shandrovsky to his supplier: Royal Hawaiian Seafood. They were ready to cooperate and make a small kitchen and office available at their headquarters.
What began as an unexpected request from the global Internet giant quickly turned into a new agenda.
“We essentially became the world’s first kosher sushi that adheres to the principles of sustainability,” says Shandrovsky. “The deeper I got into the subject, the more I saw the connection between Judaism and the principles of sustainability, and I decided to take it one step further. I saw that there was great potential here, and that the target audience didn’t have to be exclusively Jewish. Now I am already selling primarily to non-Jewish customers, because that’s a much larger market. I use Jewish principles to reach this audience.”
Kosher food in the United States (with the exception of products such as Coca Cola that are acceptable in terms of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, but are not purchased for that reason per se) is estimated to be a $50-billion-a-year business.
In her book “Kosher Nation,” published four years ago, Sue Fishkoff notes that more than 80 percent of U.S. consumers of kosher food are not Jews but rather include Muslims, Evangelists, vegetarians, people with food allergies, and others.
Shandrovksy: “In America, there’s a big problem with product labeling. A package might say crab and really contain tuna. There’s no enforcement, and people often don’t know what they’re eating. With kosher products there’s no such problem. You know exactly what you’re getting, because it has to be acceptable under the dietary laws. If I tell you that it’s salmon, it’s salmon. I stand behind that.
“So, there are lots of people who only buy kosher food. There’s a lot more awareness these days and people want to know just what they’re eating. We used the built-in advantage that kosher food has, added the principles of sustainability and took it all one step further. Today you can go on our website and know exactly what you’re eating, and where each type of fish came from You won’t find that in any other sushi business.”
In addition to running a thriving business that is kosher and adheres to the principles of sustainability, Shandrovsky does not neglect the purpose that brought him back to San Francisco: promoting Judaism.
“I want to make Judaism and kashrut a cultural thing,” he says. “We take pride in our Jewish principles and emphasize them in all our advertising. We explain to customers why we’re not open on Shabbat, even though that’s the best day for business. I’m showing people that Jewish principles can help a business, can improve the food and the service. Our customers understand that we have principles and values, that we don’t cut corners and we never lie. They can be certain that the fish we say we’re selling is really the fish they’ll be eating. My classes are open to everyone too, not only Jews. Judaism isn’t just for Jews. I think Judaism should be like Buddhism. It’s wisdom that everyone can use, even if they’re not Jewish.”
Shandrovsky’s kosher product looks like any other sushi. But the remarkable quality of the fresh fish from Royal Hawaiian is noticeable from the first bite. The Jewish/Israeli twist comes in the form of unique sauces that are offered along with the rolls: a mayonnaise-tahini sauce and schug, a spicy Middle Eastern sauce. For fans of the genre only.
Of course, there is no shellfish – only fish with scales and fins are permitted, according to dietary dictates – but L’Chaim Sushi, which is still a fairly small operation, has managed to develop a kosher crab substitute. Non-fish ingredients come exclusively from kosher suppliers, and are approved by the Vaad Hakashrus supervisory organization of Northern California.
“A Jewish sushi chef is hard to find,” says Shandrovsky. “But I realized that just as I don’t need to be a chef, the chef doesn’t need to be a rabbi. I supervise the entire process and it’s not very hard to make sushi kosher. It’s quite simple, really.”
For the past three months, since L’Chaim Sushi began officially operating from its new headquarters, demand has been steadily rising. For now, there is no eat-in option; customers can only place take-out and delivery orders. The main targets are companies and corporate events, but there are also many private customers, who apparently aren’t deterred by the $100 minimum order price.
“People tell me that we’re expensive and that they could buy the same roll at the supermarket for half the price,” Shandrovsky says. “I explain that what’s in the supermarket is not the same thing, it’s not the same quality. There are a lot of people who understand this: Just this month we had more than a thousand orders. In the first weeks, we had a little trouble keeping up and it was a bit chaotic, but now everything works very well.”
So well that Shandrovsky is already dreaming about a worldwide chain of kosher sushi places: “I hope that by next year the brand will be strong enough that we’ll be able to open up more branches. I want to build a strong brand, to be the McDonald’s of kosher sushi. In the ‘60s the Beatles traveled to India and then spread Eastern culture throughout the world. I want to do the same thing for Jewish culture and kashrut. The next stage will be to recruit famous people who’ll be identified with the brand and to promote it. After America, I want to have branches in Russia and Israel. I was there not long ago and the quality of the sushi there could be a lot better.”