Why can't Long Island support kosher restaurants? That's the question some are asking with the closing this weekend of the fourth of five kosher establishments that opened on the Island in the last three years: the first non-deli kosher restaurants outside of the Five Towns and Great Neck in recent years.
"I think nobody took seriously the idea that they wanted this place around," said Barry Zornberg, co-owner of Four Winds, a Chinese restaurant in Commack that is closing Sunday. "We started out well, but business dropped off slowly and surely. ... I've been losing $2,000 a week.
"If every person who is kosher had ordered just once a week, we would have been fine," Zornberg added. "There are enough kosher people to sustain a business.
The truth is, people don't like to spend their money. And one of my best friends said she loved the food but needed to have her shrimp. ... People who are not Jewish found the food selection too limiting, and the people who are Jewish don't give a damn."
But Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center insisted that the failure of the four restaurants should not give the Jewish community on Long Island a black eye.
"Their failure does not mean the Jewish community is failing in inculcating its values," he said. "I know that our synagogue and a tremendous number of people supported [Four Winds] on a regular basis."
Others suggested that Four Winds failed to properly advertise or promote itself after the initial burst of activity. And they noted that a new kosher restaurant is to open in Huntington Village on Monday, the day Zornberg goes non-kosher.
Jenna Weissman Joselit, who teaches American and modern Jewish studies at Princeton University and has written about Jewish culture, said more needs to be known to determine whether the failure of the restaurants reflects a changing pattern of observance or simply gastronomic and economic choices.
"If people went in the beginning, why didn't they go back?" she asked. "In general, restaurants have a very short shelf life, and Jewish kosher restaurants have an even shorter one."
Steven Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee, said he was not surprised to learn of the fluidity of kosher restaurants on Long Island.
"In Manhattan there is a large singles population for whom eating out is a staple," he said, noting the many kosher restaurants in the city. "The suburbs are family oriented and people spend more time eating at home."
The many kosher restaurants in Queens, however, remain because of the large Orthodox community that supports them, Bayme noted. But on Long Island, the Orthodox are only a "tiny minority" (outside of Great Neck and the Five Towns) and the Jews there are primarily Conservative and Reform. Many of them will dine at non-kosher restaurants.
Rabbi Buechler termed Zornberg's decision to close Four Winds a "great loss" and said he hoped other entrepreneurs would consider opening kosher restaurants on the Island.
But Aodi Zilka, owner of the defunct Sahara Restaurant in Syosset, said he would advise entrepreneurs to go elsewhere.
"I don't think it's necessary to open a kosher restaurant there because nobody really cares," he said. "I had the only kosher restaurant from Roslyn to Commack and I didn't make it. We were busy on Saturday and Sunday, but during the week it was dead. Whatever money I made on the weekend was not enough to cover my overhead."
In addition to Sahara and Four Winds, kosher eateries in Roslyn, the Hamptons and Lake Ronkonkoma have closed. But Alan Stein, manager of Stark's Dynasty, a Chinese restaurant in Bellmore, said "the Jewish community has been very supportive" of his restaurant.
Stark's Dynasty opened at the beginning of 2001 and has since added a kosher bakery, he said. Stein said the restaurant may add more tables.
The kosher restaurant opening Monday in Huntington Village, City Deli, will have an eclectic menu, including not only deli items but Chinese, Cuban and Thai food, salads and vegetarian dishes, according to its owner, Barry Wohl.
"It's an old New York deli with new age kosher catering and the coolest dining room in the hottest town," he said. "We believe we're filling a need. People will no longer have to go out of this area to get good kosher food."
The restaurant will be open seven days a week, a fact that may keep some Orthodox Jews away.
Rabbi Gershon Kreuser, who provided the kosher supervision for both Hamid and Four Winds, said these restaurants also opened during a slumping economy. Add to that the Sept.11 attack, after which the restaurant business in general took a nosedive and several went out of business.
"People want to save money," he said. "It's a bad time [for the economy] in general, not just in the Jewish community. And in a small community, you feel it even more."
Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, the director of Lubavitch operations in Suffolk, said among the problems facing Four Winds was its high overhead because of a large staff and investment in equipment. He said the restaurant's failure, therefore, may not have been a "barometer of community interest."
But Rabbi Teldon also conceded that "people who came in on Sunday and saw it busy may have taken it for granted. They may have assumed that it was always busy like that and did not come back during the week.
"We pushed as much as we could and made a major effort in behalf of Four Winds," Rabbi Teldon said. "Its closing is a real disappointment for us. The community is still growing and we will have to grow without a kosher restaurant."
Noting that one of the restaurants that closed, Meir's Pizzeria in Lake Ronkonkoma, was a dairy eatery. Rabbi Teldon said he would hope that another kosher dairy restaurant would open in Suffolk that would be less expensive to operate because it would not need full-time kosher supervision. There is one other kosher dairy restaurant in the area, Aderet, in Bethpage.
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