The high cost of Kashrut pays off for VegaDeli

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

A.J. Mense isn’t Jewish but he has no problem understanding the challenges faced by those who keep kosher. 

“I’m a vegan,” Mense said. “I can tell you I have no place to eat. I can relate.”

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Mense now has a place to eat. He opened one. But his sympathy for adherents to strict dietary laws made it all more disappointing when he was compelled in May to send out an email blast announcing that he planned to drop the kosher certification for VegaDeli, the popular vegan eatery he started in Chesterfield in 2008. The new restaurant had been kosher since the previous fall and despite his desire to keep the certification, economics intervened. While some kosher customers came in every week, Mense said it simply wasn’t enough to offset his costs and justify retaining the distinction.

It costs me to be kosher,” he said, explaining he must pay an on-site mashgiach, or rabbinical supervisor, to make sure kosher laws and techniques are followed. The mashgiach comes from Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis. “If I don’t see enough support and at the end of the month I’m paying out to be kosher, that doesn’t make sense,” he added.

But where there’s a will there’s a way and Mense’s email triggered a reaction he hadn’t counted on.

“I think there were some in the community who were very disappointed at the idea of losing another kosher establishment,” he said.

That disappointment became a blessing. Kosher patrons asked Mense to give the certification an extension to see if they could deliver the customers. He did and they did. Mense, whose deli was recently named best vegetarian restaurant by St. Louis Magazine, said there’s been a noticeable uptick in kosher customers.

“There was definitely a response, a welcome response,” he said. “There were a lot of emails. We got maybe a hundred emails and phone calls saying ‘Hey, we really hate to see this go. We really appreciate what you’ve been doing for the community.'”

And the community has responded. It doesn’t take long to see why. Satisfied customers aren’t hard to come by.

“Last night, we just had VegaDeli,” said Rabbi Avi Rubenfeld, who enjoys the establishment’s fare and said his wife, Chanala, is a fan of the marinated wraps. “They’re good and wholesome. You don’t walk out of there feeling bloated. You’re not stuffed with heavy foods but you are definitely satisfied.”

Rubenfeld, a Chesterfield resident and rabbi at Chabad of Chesterfield, said that it was always good to have more kosher establishments in town, though many who keep to the dietary laws often find themselves eating in.

“It’s a matter of perspective,” he said. ” I think a lot of people have gotten used to the fact that they don’t eat out because there weren’t that many options.”

Rubenfeld recommended others try VegaDeli as well. He said as long as the community continues to support local institutions that are already kosher such as Simon Kohn’s on Old Olive Street, it’s a great opportunity to try something new.

“If everybody could schedule one night a week that they are going to go out with their spouse or family or even once a month to the VegaDeli then we’ll know it’ll still be there,” he said.

That’s fine by Mense, who said he’s happy to help the community that’s done so much to support him.

“As long as our costs are covered that’s our objective,” he said. “We’re not looking to capitalize on things. We’re just looking to be a healthy option, a healthy alternative for the entire community.”

Certified through September, Mense plans to keep restaurant, at 177 Hilltown Village Center in Chesterfield, kosher as long as there is demand.

“We want to be kosher,” he said. “Being a vegan kosher place really takes us to a whole other level.”