New kosher option in St. Louis

BY ELLEN FUTTERMAN, EDITOR

Who says St. Louis’ culinary scene isn’t hip or trendy? As of Tuesday, the city now boasts a vegan deli, aptly named VegaDeli, which also happens to be kosher-certified.

“I had a lot of Jewish customers who don’t keep kosher ask us about becoming kosher,” says A.J. Mense, a non-Jew and owner of VegaDeli in Chesterfield, which has been in business strictly as a vegan restaurant for the past year.

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“They said, ‘You don’t serve meat or dairy, so becoming kosher would more or less be a formality.’ And it’s true, because about 98 percent of our ingredients were kosher to begin with,” adds Mense.

Veganism is a type of vegetarian diet that excludes meat, eggs, dairy products and all other animal-derived ingredients. VegaDeli, which has sit-down dining and a growing catering component, offers a vegan take on familiar dishes such soups, burgers, sandwiches, salads and desserts.

Becoming kosher-certified means having an on-site mashgiach, or rabbinical supervisor, to make sure, among other things, all ingredients are kosher, no insects are in the leaves of any fruits or vegetables and certain preparation techniques are followed. The mashgiach comes from Vaad Heoir of St. Louis, which has a staff of rabbinic coordinators who supervise locally manufactured kosher products, all local kosher butchers, bakeries, and food establishments, and the preparation of all local kosher catered events.

Mense says having a mashgiach at the deli, which is located at 177 Hilltown Village Center, is tantamount to “adding another employee.” But he says it will be worth the cost if he’s able to expand his customer base and provide Orthodox Jews with another option to eat out.

Rabbi Avi Rubenfeld, director of Chabad of Chesterfield, feels confident that will happen. “We met with (Mense) and we are 100 percent behind him,” said Rabbi Rubenfeld. “There is a very large Jewish community and very large Israeli community in West County. He has a pretty successful business without an Orthodox clientele, but I think now that he’s kosher, he will attract more people.”

Not everyone, however, is so sure that a kosher-certified restaurant can do well here. Gershon Schwadron, who owned Shmeers Caf é, a vegetarian, kosher-certified restaurant in University City from 2004 to 2007, is convinced St. Louis cannot support a kosher restaurant that is primarily a dine-in business.

“There’s no culture of Orthodox Jews eating out in St. Louis,” says Schwadron, who is the corporate executive chef at Cedars at the JCA. “And many don’t have the disposable income to eat out. They may have several children who attend private school and cannot afford restaurant dining.”

Schwadron says that in its heyday, Shmeers had about 50 to 60 Orthodox families that were regular customers. “You cannot build a business on that,” he says. Eventually, he added meat to the menu and gave up his kosher certification, before closing the business.

Jon Rubin, who owned Empire Steak Building, a kosher-certified meat restaurant in University City from 2001 to 2004, says running a kosher restaurant is challenging, but believes it can be done successfully in St. Louis.

“I felt as if the community sup ported our restaurant,” says Rubin, who now cooks at the Crown Center for Senior Living and runs Jon Rubin Catering, a kosher catering business. “There is more of an expense with kosher and there are more elements to worry about, but it can be done. I think if we had the catering business then that I have now, it would have helped. Although we did catering with Empire, customers thought of us more as a restaurant.”

Certainly, the notion of “kosher multi-tasking” is alive and well at Kohn’s Kosher Meat & Deli in Creve Coeur. Opened by Simon and Bobbi Kohn in 1963, the family-owned business now includes a full-service kosher grocery store and retail meat section, with room for 60 customers to eat on the premises, as well as a thriving catering department and prepared food take-out.

Lenny Kohn, who owns the business with his sister Rosemary, says he is always looking to expand “beyond only kosher or Jewish customers. Every day we are working on that.”

He adds: “It’s a rough market for a kosher restaurant to survive in St. Louis. I don’t know if it’s not enough people to support it or whether it’s not getting the non-Jewish people in.”

Kohn says that he has seen about eight to 10 kosher-certified restaurants come and go in St. Louis in the last 12 years. One was called No Bull Caf é, a vegetarian kosher-certified restaurant he co-owned, which lasted for about five to six years.

Rabbi Zvi Zuravin, executive director Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis, is surprised there aren’t more dine-in kosher restaurants in St. Louis, which has a Jewish community of roughly 60,000 people. He notes that other cities such as Kansas City and Cincinnati, with smaller Jewish populations, have more kosher offerings. Rabbi Zuravin said the Vaad Hoeir earlier this year began “Once a Wok,” which featured kosher Chinese food every other week at Kohn’s, though the program was not affiliated with the market/deli. But after a few attempts, it ended.

Schwadron, Rubin and Kohn each noted that having to close on Shabbat and on Jewish holidays can hurt business, especially among non-Jewish clientele. “The busiest time for restaurants is the weekends,” says Schwadron, “and with kosher you have to close Friday nights and Saturday, and multiple days during certain months for Jewish holidays. It breaks the flow of business.”

That, however, doesn’t seem to worry Mense, who says he and his wife and business partner, Leah, welcome having more time off to spend with their family. They are closing VegaDeli at 3 p.m. on Fridays and reopening on Saturdays, from 8:30 p.m. until midnight. They also will be closed on Sundays and Mondays, although he’s rethinking Sunday. And they plan to open a second location in Clayton early next year.

“We’ll see how it goes,” says Mense, referring to VegaDeli’s new kosher certification. “I think we’re in a better position (than kosher restaurants before) because we already have an established clientele.

“The need for a kosher restaurant in Chesterfield was brought to our attention and we want to do our best to fulfill that need,” Mense adds. “The rabbi told us to get ready.”