Running a kosher Chinese restaurant has presented some interesting challenges for owner David Chu.
When planning his menu for David Chu's China Bistro 10 months ago, he had to forget about familiar Chinese dishes like sweet-and-sour shrimp and pork-fried rice. He had to arrange for ingredients to be prepared under rabbinical supervision and shipped from New York, and he had to adjust his business hours, closing two hours before sundown on Friday and not opening before sundown on Saturdays.
He and his staff even had to make sure customers didn't bring milk-based baby formula into the restaurant because meat and dairy are not allowed to mix in kosher restaurants.
"It's not easy to do kosher Chinese," Chu said.
Yet despite these difficulties, Chu says it's worth it now that customers are coming from as far away as Silver Spring and Pennsylvania to eat at his restaurant.
His is one of the most recent kosher restaurants to open on Reisterstown Road -- a stretch that now includes kosher pizza parlors, Chinese restaurants, markets and even a kosher snowball stand. Two new businesses will be opening soon: Sabra Grill, which will have falafel, grilled meats, hearth-baked pitas and a spiced turkey called shwama; and Fancy That, which will provide high-end pastries that are free of dairy products.
Although most customers are kosher, the boom in kosher restaurants isn't just because of a growing Jewish population in the area.
"The kosher market is expanding and more and more people appreciate the benefits of tapping into that market," said Rebecca Mark, director of communications for Star-K, the Baltimore-based international kosher certification organization. "If it's a good place, people in the general geographic area will patronize it, just for variety's sake."
According to the Star-K Web site, kosher eaters make up only 45 percent of the customers of kosher foods.
"According to market studies, the appeal of kosher foods transcends the interest of any one specific ethnic group," the site says. "Consumers of kosher foods include Jews, Muslims and members of other religious denominations, vegetarians, those with lactose intolerance, and those who believe that `kosher is better.' "
A certified kosher restaurant is not allowed to serve pork or shellfish. And it must have a mashgiach either on staff or on call to be sure the restaurant complies with kosher dietary laws. All of those factors add to the cost of doing business.
Tov Pizza owner Ronnie Rosenbluth sells his pizza slices for $1.66, about the same price of a nonkosher slice, but his expenses are higher. A pound of kosher mozzarella, shipped from New York, wholesales for nearly $3, about a dollar more than nonkosher cheese. He also has to pay a yearly fee for rabbinical supervision.
Like most kosher restaurants, Tov Pizza relies on volume to make up for its smaller profit margin. The restaurant attracts Muslims and vegetarians in addition to Jews, said Rosenbluth, who has on his menu a "pepper-Ronnie" pizza made with a pepperoni-like soy substitute. Rosenbluth also sells lasagna, eggplant parmesan and other dishes to local hospitals, who like serving food that is appropriate for vegetarians and kosher eaters.
Rosenbluth has seen a lot of changes on Reisterstown Road since he opened Tov Pizza more than 18 years ago. "We were the first [kosher pizza place] and now there are six in Maryland. There are three on Reisterstown Road."
One of those is Mama Leah's, whose owner, Javin Sher, is also seeing an increase in nonkosher customers. "My experience here at this location is we are seeing more non-Jews coming in to eat here, particularly during lunch time, which is what I want," Sher said. "The more people I can get in, the better -- from a business standpoint."
The demand for kosher restaurants has even prompted some nonkosher establishments to go kosher. Joey Rosen, manager of the Brasserie, said the upscale restaurant went kosher about five years ago and has never looked back. "Our restaurant is the only fine-dining kosher restaurant in Baltimore," he said.
The Brasserie, which serves Chateaubriand, London broil, salads, fish, pastas and pareve ice cream, among other things, serves a customer base that is about 80 percent kosher, he said. The other customers are there because they are eating with someone who is kosher, he said.
Going kosher can have its downside, however, said Mike Yu of Szechuan Dynasty, also on Reisterstown Road. The eatery operated 3 1/2 years as a nonkosher restaurant before switching in February 2001. "We used to have pretty good customers who don't come here anymore because they like the regular food, like shrimp and pork, which we lost. But we gained a lot of new customers, so it's OK," he said.