Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why Kosher Restaurants Fail

[I wrote this several years ago in a different - and snarkier - forum, and in order to have something new up here after Pesach, I'm pre-posting this to appear Motzaei Yom Tov.]

The percentage of general restaurants that fail is very high; the percentage of kosher restaurants that fail is so close to 100% that you couldn’t squeeze a limp Burger Nosh french fry through that gap.

Why do so many Kosher restaurants fail? I see three reasons: The owners, the customers, and the food.

The owners:
In my experience, many kosher restaurants, especially those outside of New York, are started by people who have already struggled in other businesses and who figure that this niche should be an easy hit.

I heard this from a would-be entrepreneur once: “Look, they love food. And they for sure want to eat out, who wants to cook every night? And there are no options locally, people have to drive XX minutes to get to the nearest kosher place. I could even do catering. I’ll have them eating out of my hand!”

The result is that quite a few of these restaurants are run by people with little business acumen, with a weak business plan, and without an inkling of just how much work they are going to have to put into the place. They often find themselves compelled to overlook aesthetics, and even basic cleanliness (that “eating out of my hand” reference above is pretty literal). Fresh vegetables? Fresh out of the freezer, maybe. Service with a smile? With a snarl, more like.

The customers:
Now we’re really talking the stuff of nightmares.

Actual conversation in a kosher deli:
Customer: There isn’t enough pastrami on this sandwich.
Waiter: It’s a turkey sandwich.
Customer: What, you ain’t never hoid of putting pastrami on a turkey sandwich? They always used to do that in the old kosher delis.
Waiter: You ordered a plain turkey sandwich, and we don’t put pastrami on a plain turkey sandwich.
Customer: Hey, don’t you know the rule, the customer is always right?

Okay, so maybe that’s exaggerated, but not by much. Line-cutting, rudeness to the wait staff (you know, it’s not the waiter’s fault that it takes them forever to prepare your food), kids racing around under the tables, complaints galore…

And, of course, the food.

There’s only so much you can do to kosher food when you are trying to prepare it in large enough bulk to feed a large crowd but not in such a large bulk that you throw 75% of it into the trash.
Cold deli sandwiches are easy, and certain standbys freeze well, but how fancy can you get when you’re expecting five to fifteen people to order a given dish on a given night? In New York you’ll have larger volume, but outside of New York, forget it.

Often, the restaurateurs think they’ll make it by appealing to a non-Jewish clientele as well. “Everyone loves pizza,” they say, neglecting the fact that the sentence really goes, “Everyone loves pizza with treif cheese and an assortment of treif toppings.” Ditto for Middle Eastern, Chinese, TexMex and every other kosher crossover they dream up.

It’s a simple matter of variety, as well as profit margin and economies of scale. Memo to these owners: You. Can’t. Compete. With. Treif.

So there you have it, folks: The Owners, the Customers, and the Food. All of it adds up to lots of failed restaurants, and lots of wannabes in hock up to their eyeballs to pay for their dead ventures.

Hmmm. Come to think of it, we could apply the same principles to why synagogues struggle/fail: The Board/Rabbi, the Congregation, the Davening… something to think about there…


  1. The would-be restauranteur needs to candidly assess the local market for his intended offerings, his competition (other present and future restaurants, take-outs, eating at home), and his ability to sell the food at profitable prices. The facility should not be oversized or overstaffed relative to typical daily traffic. The menu should be limited to what's always available (plus daily specials, if any) and not be some imaginary trip to gastronomia. Staff in and out of the kitchen should be competent and trustworthy.

  2. Not just kosher restaurants fail. Something like 75% of ALL restaurants fail within their first year. Would-be restaurateurs consistently underestimate what's needed to successfully run a restaurant.

  3. Bob-
    Certainly true, thanks.

    It's true that many general restaurants fail in their first few years, but the big first-year stat seems to be unfounded. The Business Week research I have seen says 60% in their first three years.

  4. I believe that if you want to be successful in the business you're venturing into, you should put your heart and mind to it.

  5. This is truly a great post + insight into our crazy world of kosher restaurants. In NYC I see it almost on a daily basis. Everything about the customers you describe is true, and three times as true in Brooklyn and possibly Manhattan.

    Most restauranteurs do do business based on their gut, which is why so many fail. Having said that, kudos to those whose places have been around for a few decades.

    I'd like to ask your permission to re-blog this on YeahThatsKosher.com (giving you credit of course) with some of my color commentary added.

    Kudos on a great post.

    ~Dani Klein

  6. Lis-
    Amen - and not just in business!

    Sure, please do re-post; I'm honoured, and thanks for the compliments.