NEW YORK -- Kosher fast food is really cooking these days.
Empire Kosher Poultry, the 50-year-old producer of kosher chicken, has got such good feedback on its two cafeteria-style restaurants, it is about to franchise the idea.
If it flies, there will be about 28 Empire Kosher Chicken Restaurants in the New York area in three years, says Ezra Douek, Empire's partner in this venture. The chain will be the first kosher fast-food franchise ever, says Steve Ostrow, an expert on the kosher food scene.
Empire, which sells $100 million worth of poultry a year, is diversifying into one of the few flourishing parts of the slumping restaurant business. Sales of fast-food kosher eateries will grow about 10 percent next year in the New York area, compared to 5.2 percent for the whole restaurant industry.
The move comes at a time when kosher food is getting more popular among both Jews and non-Jews. Since it doesn't have additives, it's perceived as being more healthful, says Mr. Ostrow, who publishes the Kosher Club Guide to Kosher Restaurants. There are more than 18,000 kosher products on the market now, up from 1,000 a decade ago.
"We thought it was a good time to experiment with restaurants that sell our kosher chickens, particularly now when people want to cook lessand still have quality food," said Matt Soccio, comptroller of Mifflington, Pa.-based Empire.
"There seemed to be a market for ethnic quality products, which would be prepared under the strictest dietary laws. Judging by all the inquiries we have had from potential franchisees, I'd say there's a lot of interest out there," he said. Kosher laws say animals must be slaughtered in a humane way and forbid the mixing of meat and milk products.
The first two outlets have been successful, Mr. Soccio said, though he wouldn't divulge sales. Empire's initial investment in the project was $250,000, Mr. Soccio said.
Empire, in partnership with Mr. Douek, who owns 49 percent of its new restaurant division, is applying for federal and state approval to franchise.
Mr. Douek opened the first Empire restaurant in Forest Hills, N.Y., two years ago. He is the sole owner. The second restaurant was opened a year ago near Lincoln Center, and is co-owned by Mr. Douek and Empire.
"Our concept is a fast-food restaurant serving high-quality kosher products," said Douek.
"We use china plates and silverware instead of paper and plastic to keep the standard high," he said. Once Empire is established in the tri-state area, he plans to take it national.
The restaurants, which each seat 72 and employ 11, look alike. Designed to be a notch above the typical fast-food joint, they feature upholstered chairs and carpeting, and even have flowers on the tables, which seat no more than four.
The average check is $6, said Mr. Douek, and best sellers include roast, barbecue or fried chicken. The menu also features tuna and egg salad, soups, green salads and a range of desserts. Takeout and delivery are available.
"People like it because the food is fresh, with everything cooked on the premises," said Mr. Douek.
Mr. Ostrow compared the concept to that of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Instead of serving a complimentary biscuit, though, Empire uses a corn or carrot muffin. Prices are comparable, according to Empire's Mr. Douek.
Mr. Ostrow said the growth of the kosher fast-food industry is a sign of the times. "People who keep kosher are no different than anyone else. They are in a hurry. But they have dietary restrictions to observe, so more and more kosher restaurants are opening to meet the needs of our fast-paced society."