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When George Washington University eliminated Nosh, the kosher deli in its J Street dining complex in summer 2012, Rabbi Yudi Steiner suddenly found himself with dozens more mouths to feed—especially since GW’s student body ranks as the fifth most Jewish among private universities in the U.S., according to a 2015 survey by Hillel, a Jewish college organization.
Steiner is the co-director of a religious group for Jewish students on campus called Jewish Colonials Chabad. He has hosted Shabbat dinners every Friday since coming to GW in 2008, but that only provides one meal per week to students keeping kosher. Eventually Steiner and his wife started inviting students into their home for an additional weekly dinner.
The rabbi encouraged students to speak out in support of more kosher food options and, when an alumnus offered funding, he considered launching a concept of his own. “I wasn’t in a position to open up a restaurant—I’m a rabbi,” Steiner says. “But a kosher food truck seemed like it was a manageable endeavor.”
The idea isn’t unprecedented: Sixth & I Historic Synagogue operated a kosher sandwich truck for a brief period in 2011 with help from Good Stuff Eatery’s Spike Mendelsohn. Still, Steiner couldn’t devote enough attention to launching a food truck to bring the project to fruition, so the idea was tabled until an enterprising student arrived on campus in fall 2015.
During the week-long celebration of Sukkot, a Jewish holiday during which observers pray and eat in a temporary outdoor structure called a sukkah, the conversation turned to campus dining, and freshman Carly Meisel joined the kvetch session. A native of Newton, Massachusetts, Meisel spent much of her freshman year subsisting on pre-packaged hummus and microwaved spaghetti squash and sweet potato. When Steiner shared his vision for kosher dining on wheels, Meisel became determined to make it happen.
By the winter, the pair had written a business plan and started fundraising. They were motivated by the knowledge that “every day we don’t have a food truck and don’t have a kosher option, there are Jews eating unkosher food,” Meisel says. Soon, Brooklyn Sandwich Co. was born. After months of research and recipe testing, the truck officially hit the streets on July 5, serving fare like pulled brisket sandwiches, pastrami, curried chicken wraps, and knishes.
It could be the start to a solution. Even though 30 percent of GW’s student body identifies as Jewish, maintaining a kosher option on campus has been a continual struggle. In a 2012 interview with The Hatchet, Senior Associate Vice President Ed Schonfeld cited a lack of patrons as a reason behind the shuttering of Nosh. Many Jewish students don’t keep kosher, some work around restrictions by eating vegetarian, and only a small portion of the community observes the strictest rules on a daily basis, say Steiner, Schonfeld, and others.
Additionally, the cost of kosher ingredients and additional labor had become untenable for the university, especially when students could spend some of their meal plan at the local Whole Foods Market, where kosher options are more abundant. The university’s quick fix was to replace Nosh with a small fridge from which students could grab pre-made sandwiches and wraps that were certified kosher. The school’s Jewish organizations served kosher snacks at gatherings throughout the week. But while the fellowship is fun, these gatherings are not enough, according to Meisel. “There’s no such thing as letting a Jew who keeps kosher go hungry,” she says.
In a college setting, it’s easy enough to abide by the simpler kosher laws such as not mixing meat and dairy and avoiding shellfish, but the most observant Jews keep what’s called glatt kosher. According to Steiner, glatt kosher is the strictest because all ingredients, from the oil used for cooking to the meat served, must be declared kosher by a koshering agency. In addition, all fruits and vegetables must be examined by a certified supervisor called a mashgiach, who checks for the presence of bugs.
In order to set up a glatt kosher food truck, Meisel and Steiner not only had to figure out how to start a business from scratch, but to do so according to strict standards. They turned to Dylan Kough for help navigating the D.C. food truck scene. Kough operates two Smoking Kow BBQ trucks and started a food truck consulting firm last winter. While the rabbi handled the religious aspects, Kough focused on the bigger picture, like choosing a concept. When the team approached Kough, they initially didn’t want to serve typical Jewish food like reubens, but he convinced them to lean into their culinary traditions. “You have a built-in identity for building a kosher food truck,” Kough says. “Why would you do something else?”
Preparing the food also proved challenging. When the mashgiach declared that the synagogue kitchen where the team prepared food wasn’t quite kosher enough, they had to cover surfaces with two layers of aluminum foil while another rabbi took a blowtorch to the stove and oven to purify it.
As far as sourcing, many purveyors buy their ingredients in bulk from stores like Restaurant Depot to keep costs down, but buying kosher ingredients naturally costs more. Kough purchases brisket for about $2.50 a pound for his barbecue food trucks. The kosher version of the same meat costs Brooklyn Sandwich Co. $6 a pound. The truck’s pretzel rolls, baked in Brooklyn, get delivered every Tuesday and have to last a week.
The additional costs and resources required to operate a kosher business is one of the reasons why so few exist in D.C. proper. Char Bar, a family-style restaurant serving sandwiches and salads in Foggy Bottom, is the only kosher sit-down spot in the District. Soupergirl, the vegan soup company, has a production kitchen and cafe on Carroll Street NW in Takoma and a small storefront on M Street NW south of Dupont Circle.
For Soupergirl owner Sara Polon, the decision to become a kosher business was at first accidental because she initially cooked in a synagogue kitchen. As a person who personally kept kosher, Polon decided to make the kitchen at the Takoma location certified kosher as well. “I wanted my food to be available to everyone, and I know that a lot of kosher people just miss out on some of D.C.’s great food because it’s not kosher,” she says.
This means she has to employ a mashgiach who checks all the vegetables and makes sure the kitchen is operating appropriately. It also means the business has to be extra careful about people bringing in outside food, which is against kosher laws as well as D.C. health code. It also closes every week for the Sabbath. “I think people think because we’re vegan, it’s really easy, but it’s still really involved,” she says. “I could not imagine doing this with meat.”
Meanwhile, D.C.’s interest in traditional Jewish deli fare continues to grow. Bullfrog Bagels, which sold out regularly at pop-ups before setting up shop inside The Star & Shamrock—H Street NE’s Jewish deli meets Irish pub—does steady business, as do both locations of DGS Delicatessen. Neither business offers kosher fare.
DGS owner Nick Wiseman says his decision not to follow kosher laws came down to matters of tradition and creativity. Although he grew up Jewish, Wiseman says, “it wasn’t part of our experience,” pointing out that many classic deli items are not actually kosher. That didn’t stop guests from calling to ask during the first three months of operations. “We’ve always been pretty transparent about that never being the intent of the restaurant,” Wiseman says. By not keeping it kosher, Wiseman can more easily experiment with curing his own meat and seafood and can offer customers a more refined take on classic sandwiches and matzo ball soup.
The demand for deli fare has made Brooklyn Sandwich Co. a popular lunch destination for both kosher and non-kosher eaters. It sold out regularly during its first two weeks of service and, according to Kough, regularly brings in $1,200 to $1,300 in sales on any given day. He says most food trucks setting up in the Farragut and L’Enfant areas of town would call $1,000 a good day. Still, with its increased operating costs, surpassing the break-even point quickly will be challenging. After everyone gets paid, the remaining proceeds are funneled back to support Jewish Colonials Chabad’s programming.
When the school year begins in September, Meisel and Steiner hope to park the truck on GW’s campus two days a week. “We’re hoping that this truck will bring the Jewish community at GW together,” Meisel says. “It’s something we can all stand behind.” While they’re still working with university officials to figure out if students will be able to use their meal plans to purchase food from the truck, both are pleased kosher students won’t be limited to the sad offerings of one small fridge when they arrive in Foggy Bottom. CP
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