Q: Why doesn’t DC have more kosher food restaurants? A: The Vaad

This piece reflects only the views of Stephen Richer.  It is not a GTJ institutional stance.

If you keep kosher, life in DC can be tough.  Your options for eating are:

Why so few options?  DC has a sizeable Jewish population…  Why do we lag so far behind our neighboring Eastern power-cities in terms of kosher food?  (DC dominates in all else)

Do I overestimate the demand?  Are there enough kosher eaters in the city to support more than two restaurants?  It sure seems like it – I hear people complain on a regular basis about the lack of kosher restaurants in DC (Though, as John Stewart once ironically noted (paraphrased), it’s not exactly hard to get a 70-year old Jewish man to complain).  But it’s hard to know for sure without surveying the entire DC population.

But supply on the other hand…  Interruptions in the supply curve could be tested.

So ten months ago, two friends (one GTJ co-conspirator and one former Jewish Guy of the Week) and I to see if we could open a kosher deli in North Dupont complete with Jewish trivia questions for discounts, pastrami sandwiches stacked high, and a menorah punch card that earned you a free sandwich on your ninth visit.

We assembled the team.
We got the capital.
Kosher certification…?

Kosher certification for the DC area is supposed to go through the Vaad (short for Vaad Harabanim: The Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington).

It would be kind to say that the Vaad received our proposal coldly.  It felt more like we were asking them for their firstborn child than we were their certification.

And then we got to costs:

  • $2,000 for the initial kasherization.
  • Yearly inspection fee.
  • $60,000 for Mashgiach salary.

The salary for the mashgiach seemed a bit steep given the proposed small size of our store.  But we thought there might be some ways to mitigate it.

Q: The mashgiach could double as our store manager, right?
A: No.  He would need to focus on kashrut responsibilities.

Q: We could stay open for long hours and try to generate more revenue to offset the salary.
A: Yes.  But you would need to hire two mashgiachs you stayed open for more than 50 hours a week.

Q: What if we don’t sell meat?  Would we still need a mashgiach?
A: Yes, he would still have to be there from opening till close, but he could devote more of his time to non-Kosher activities.
Commentary: This ran contrary to almost everything I had heard.

Q: Any chance we can sell stuff on Friday nights?  This is Dupont after all!  We wouldn’t have the mashgiach there – we would just sell pre-wrapped sandwiches, and we wouldn’t use the money to profit, just to cover our costs.
A: No.

As if that weren’t enough, they then told us that because one of the partners owned another restaurant that wasn’t kosher, they couldn’t give us a new license until we kasherized the other restaurant.

That was the breaking point.  Pretty disappointing.  I hope others have better luck.  But it’s no longer surprising to me why DC doesn’t have more kosher food.

Note: I’m also kind of curious as to how Spike Mendelsohn is able to start this kosher food truck when he owns a non-kosher restaurant…  Maybe he went to a service other than the Vaad.  Maybe we should done that too, but we were told that wasn’t “kosher.”