Shlomo Assayag wants to support Toronto kosher restaurants. He really does. It's just that he and his fellow Orthodox Jews "have a limited amount of disposable income that we can spend on entertainment, outings and restaurants," the 41-year-old father and husband says.
He estimates he goes out to eat 50 percent less than he used to before he had kids and faced the hefty tuition fees private Hebrew schools demand. He's also been hit hard by the closure of Toronto kosher landmark restaurants such as Marky's, which shut its doors in 2012 after 43 years in operation.
Other closures in the past several years include Dairy Treats, Joe Boo's Cookoos, Miami Grill, one location of Howie T's Burger Bar, and Howie T's kiosk at Canada's Wonderland.*
Despite Toronto kosher restaurants and takeout spots reaching an all-time peak of 48 in 2016, compared to the 20 venues available in the 1980s, kosher eaters struggle to support kosher establishments like they once did. They decry the high cost of kosher food and the lack of sit-down restaurants that doubled as community hubs for Toronto's Jews. "I really miss Marky's," says Assayag, with a forlorn note in his voice. The go-to deli-friendly restaurant was undoubtedly more than just a place to get the finest smoked meat and chicken soup; it was one of the few establishments open late, often till midnight or 1 AM, "because every other kosher place in Toronto shuts down at 10 PM," says Assayag.
When I used to go to Marky's with my family, I spotted Orthodox Jewish kids huddled over slices of pie and Cokes, and old guys talking long after they had paid their bills. It felt like a café spiced with the smell of brisket and pastrami.
Erez Karp, whose family owned and operated Marky's, recalls the reasons for closing: "It just wasn't economically viable. We tried to cut back costs but the price of kosher meat is too high, and we noticed Orthodox families spending a lot of money on real estate to have homes closer to their synagogues," as observant Orthodox Jews don't take transit or drive to synagogue on the Sabbath. "And they were spending a lot on education for their children."
I ask Karp about the impressive variety of kosher food available to diners now in Toronto, such as the Levantine fare at Dr. Laffa and sushi at D-Lite's in Thornhill. Wouldn't that encourage more Orthodox Jews to get out of the house? "Sure, there are more choices than 25 years ago, but even those spots have become homogenous…And it seems the only truly successful restaurants are dairy."
Many of those I interviewed for this article complained about the relative lack of kosher meat and chicken suppliers in Toronto, compared to places such as New York City. Restaurant owners have to pass that high cost onto customers, which is why a kosher deli sandwich in Richmond Hill may cost $23 compared to $16 in NYC.
Opening a restaurant, whether kosher or non-kosher, is risky business due to tight operating margins and high costs. There's an added wrinkle that makes it even more difficult for kosher restaurants, as David Sax, author of Save The Deli, explains: "Kosher restaurants have to close on most of weekend because Shabbos begins Friday night until Saturday night. And they have to close on the many Jewish high holidays through the year. Non-kosher restaurants don't have that challenge."
And of course, there is the limited clientele. With a Jewish population of roughly 200,000, Toronto likely has around 20,000 kosher eaters, according to an estimate by Richard Rabkin, managing director of the Kashrut Council of Canada, which oversees the "COR" designation every kosher restaurant must receive.
"Then again," Rabkin begins optimistically, "you have a captive market with those kosher eaters. They don't have as many options as non-kosher eaters."
He also believes successful kosher venues can succeed by attracting non-kosher eaters, which is what he's seen with Dr. Laffa and their flatbread wraps and sandwiches. "People want authentic Middle East cuisine, and if it's a kosher place, it doesn't matter, that's where they'll go."
Assayag counters that non-kosher restaurants take more risks than kosher spots, and they can pull inspiration from different parts of the world. "But kosher places are limited by the ingredients they're allowed to include," he notes. That means no shellfish, no pork, no mixing of dairy and meat.
Armanda Cohen, owner of kosher restaurants Marron Bistro and D-Lite's, says kosher eaters are "very particular and they are tough customers. So you have to do something different, something unique." His sushi restaurant D-Lite's attempts to set itself apart from the usual kosher fare in the city, Cohen adds. And when "copycats come in to try to do what's already working," he's not surprised when they close.
Some Torontonians are passionate about promoting good news about the city's Toronto scene, such as Camilla Soberano, who runs the Facebook Page Kosher Restaurants in Toronto and Thornhill. "I want to help kosher restaurants because there is a lot of negativity about them, from the press, from their own customers," she says.
She also consults with kosher restaurant owners on how to compete successfully in a market that is clamouring for the comparatively few kosher eaters who go out to eat. A key message she stresses to those owners is to learn from the non-Jewish outlets and engage with customers on social media. "Very few kosher restaurants in Toronto are on Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn," Soberano notes, "and I don't think many of them are on UberEats. They should be...and it doesn't take too much time away from what they do."
Norene Gilletz, a Toronto-based author of 12 kosher cookbooks, says a successful kosher restaurant will follow the blueprint of a top-notch non-Jewish eatery: quality food, great customer service. "If it works for a regular restaurant, it should work for kosher restaurants," she adds.
As Rabkin points out, kosher eaters shouldn't be kvetching too hard since there are 48 venues in Toronto to choose from, but he acknowledges Assayag's point about losing an institution such as Marky's. "A kosher restaurant closure in Toronto is magnified because so many people have their favourite place to go and losing your hub can be a shock to you, your friends, and your family."
*Correction 7/7/17: An earlier version of this story said that Howie T's Burger Bar had closed, but in fact the restaurant relocated to Thornhill. In addition, the Howie T's Burger Bar in Canada's Wonderland was not a restaurant, but a kiosk. We regret the error.