Is St. Louis hungry for additional kosher dining options? Study aims to find out

David Benkof has funded a study to find out if St. Louisans have the interest to support more kosher dining options.

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

David Benkof, a local writer and creator of the Jerusalem Post crossword puzzle that runs weekly in the Jewish Light and other Jewish papers nationally, thinks St. Louis needs another kosher restaurant. Earlier this year, Benkof, who identifies as Orthodox, paid more than $25,000 for studies to collect data on the local market for such a restaurant. 

The question is, if he is so hungry for another restaurant, why not just take that money and open his own?

“I am not interested in going into a kosher food business,” said Benkof, who made the grant through Chabad of Greater St. Louis. “This is a tzedakah project on my part.”

He hopes data from a feasibility study conducted by a market-research firm, as well as a less scientific community-wide survey, will entice an investor to open a kosher restaurant. And that would make St. Louis a more comfortable place for people who keep kosher, he said.

St. Louis has only two kosher restaurants: Kohn’s Kosher Meat & Deli, which is open daily for lunch and one night a week for dinner in Creve Coeur; and Gokul, an Indian vegetarian restaurant in University City. But most nights, there are no available kosher meat or dairy restaurants.

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Other kosher restaurants have been unsuccessful over the past couple of decades, including Empire Steak Building, a which was open from 2001 to 2004, and Shmeers Café, a vegetarian restaurant that lasted from 2004 to 2007. Both were in University City.

Benkof admits there is pessimism in the St. Louis Jewish community about the odds of someone opening a restaurant and it being successful. He hopes the feasibility study will improve those chances.

“To make a restaurant successful, a restaurateur is going to need to know the nature of the market – what locations, what kinds of food, what kind of dining experience people would be interested in,” said Benkof, 45, of Clayton. “I thought I could ease that process by gathering the data and putting it out in an open-source way so that everyone has equal access to it.” 

Chabad used the grant to pay for a market-research firm to randomly survey 301 kosher-food consumers in the St. Louis area. The Orthodox group also launched a website, Gatewaykosher.com, which features a questionnaire asking people what sort of kosher food they would be most interested in: Mexican, Israeli, Italian meat, Italian dairy, a deli or a steakhouse? And, would people prefer a kosher  restaurant with table service or a buffet?

After the survey is closed, Benkof will then publish the data on the website. 

Next year, he plans to travel to Kosherfest, an annual trade show for the industry, to talk to potential investors about opportunities in St. Louis.

Benkof disagrees with the notion that another restaurant can’t be successful in St. Louis. He points to cities such as Dallas and Seattle with similar size Jewish communities that have four or five kosher restaurants. And past restaurateurs did not have the benefit of the market data that Benkof plans to provide.

He said he has spoken with people who had job opportunities at Monsanto but decided to take jobs at similar agricultural technology companies in other cities because of the lack of kosher restaurants here.

By bringing them to St. Louis, it would have a “ripple effect,” providing more people who would send their children to Jewish day schools and donate to Jewish Federation of St. Louis, Benkof said.  

“I like doing the entrepreneurial philanthropy, where I get my hands dirty and be creative in solving problems,” he said. “As opposed to writing a check to an organization, I like to identify a problem in the community and think creatively about how to address it.” 

Chabad’s director, Rabbi Yosef Landa, said an additional restaurant would serve as “a communal asset.”

“Family interactions, community interactions and business interactions take place over food, and if we enable that, then we are creating a better Jewish community,” he said.

Landa also noted that it is the 40-year anniversary of when Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Chabad leader known as the Rebbe, campaigned for kosher observance. This campaign included offering people a 50 percent rebate for the expenses involved with making a kitchen kosher.

Benkof’s efforts, Landa said, “are a nice way to commemorate” that campaign.

 Readers can take the kosher food survey at Gatewaykosher.com.