Erez Karp remembers washing dishes in his father’s restaurant when he was just 11 years old. Forty years later, he was working in that same restaurant – but had been promoted from dishwasher to owner.
Last week, Karp served the deli’s last sandwich.
“I didn’t just like working there – I loved it,” said Karp, 54, the owner of Marky’s Deli and Restaurant, a glatt kosher restaurant in Toronto. “It’s my $20 million job – it’s something I would do for nothing.”
The family-owned business is one of six kosher restaurants in Toronto to close in the past nine months. All of them cited harsh economic conditions and a change in the Jewish community’s food preferences as factors that contributed to their shuttering.
“It’s an issue of prioritization,” said Karp. “As housing prices rise and the cost of tuition has gone up, going out to eat goes further down the priority list for a Jewish family.”
Toronto is home to about 200,000 Jews – of which about 10-20% are Orthodox, the main clientele for the city’s kosher restaurants.
According to Karp, Toronto’s kosher food industry has dealt with shifts from both sides of the community's spectrum: on one hand, Conservative families no longer eat strictly kosher outside the home as they once did, and on the other hand, some Orthodox Jews are so strict that they won’t eat out in restaurants – especially meat ones – at all.
These changing attitudes have created challenges businesses, even for those that have been around for more than 40 years.
Karp’s parents bought the restaurant in November 1969 after emigrating from Israel to Canada, bringing with them Eastern European recipes that would become favorites among Toronto’s Jewish community. In 1988, he took over the restaurant.
Marky’s meat was pickled and smoked on the spot and all their gravies and sauces were homemade.
“My personal favorite was a juicy pastrami sandwich on an onion bun, with hot mustard, homemade gravy and fries,” said Karp. “Nothing tasted like our food because of the way we prepared it from scratch.”
Karp admits that there have been other significant hurdles over the years, but he only recently entertained the thought of closing shop.
Restaurant owners like Karp said the challenge of running a kosher restaurant, and making it profitable as the price of kosher food skyrockets, was too much to bear.
“We noticed that business was down 10-15% - and that’s all the profit we were making,” said Karp.
“When five other kosher restaurants closed in the area, and my business did not go up even a little, that really told me something,” he said.
He predicts the kosher industry in Toronto will suffer even more in the future.
“It’s an intangible situation,” he said. “There’s not enough of a margin to make the business profitable, and if you price it the way you should, then people won’t pay for it.”
Yet others remain optimistic that the kosher food industry will bounce back from the current economic hardships and changing tides.
“Yes, restaurants have closed down, but nine new kosher restaurants have opened in the past year as well,” said Richard Rabkin, director of marketing and business development for the Kashruth Council of Canada (COR), the largest kosher certification agency in Canada. “All businesses have experienced a slowdown in this economy and that’s true of restaurants as well,” he added.
Toronto has in fact seen a crop of new kosher restaurants open up, but the majority of them serve Middle Eastern-inspired food like shawarma, laffa and falafel or are fast-food burger joints - a far cry from Marky’s sit-down Eastern European deli, with traditional foods like goulash and borscht.
“The community’s food preferences have changed,” said Karp. “People are not going out to eat kishkas and knishes – there’s more of a concern of what goes into the food you’re eating and how it’s made.”
These challenges may not be unique to kosher restaurants – all businesses must learn to deal with rent increases and high expenditures, but Rabkin, for one, is confident the industry has a future.
“There may be bumps along the road, but I look forward to taking my family out to dinner in a kosher restaurant in another 10 years,” he said.
It just won’t be Karp behind the counter.