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Covenant’s cafe thrives with 2 kitchens, kosher and non-kosher

HJ's Café

Rabbi Binyomin Mazer, the mashgiach at HJ’s Cafe, works in the restaurant’s kosher dairy kitchen. Photo: Eric Berger

If you were to walk into HJ’s Cafe on a weekday afternoon, you might notice that the new restaurant at the Mirowitz Center in Covenant Place offers items such as a chili cheese dog as well as a kosher tuna melt.

Some guests have asked Covenant Place staff: How can a restaurant offer dishes that mix milk and meat as well as dairy items that are certified kosher?

HJ’s Café is able to do that because it has two kitchens. One is certified by the Vaad Hoeir of St Louis as a kosher dairy kitchen. The other is like any other kitchen in which cooks can prepare a brisket sandwich with cheese. 

The management of Covenant Place, a nonprofit senior residence supported by Jewish Federation of St. Louis, chose a two-kitchen model to keep prices for customers as close to cost as possible by offering non-kosher items, which have lower food costs, according to Joan Denison, president and CEO of the organization. 

“We had not seen a fully kosher restaurant other than Kohn’s [Kosher Deli] that had significant business and was able to flourish in St. Louis,” she said. “And part of our model was to keep the food affordable. If we had made it all kosher, the food costs would be higher, and we would have had to pass that on to everybody whether they required kosher food or not.”

In the years prior to opening the $34 million facility, the second part of a three-phase project on the I.E. Millstone Campus near Creve Coeur, Denison started talking with Rabbi Zvi Zuravin, executive director of the Vaad, about what having a kosher and non-kosher restaurant would entail.

Zuravin said the kosher-certification agency had experience with similar arrangements at a food court at Washington University and at Busch Stadium and the Enterprise Center, where there are, of course, also non-kosher items.

Covenant Place had to hire a full-time kosher supervisor and build the two kitchens.

The organization also hired a general manager, Lisa Hungler, who had worked with the Bon Appétit Management Co.’s kosher service at Washington U, so she was well aware of the regulations involved. 

“It involves a lot of training, a lot of constant management, and the staff has to get used to having one kitchen that’s kosher and one kitchen that’s not,” Zuravin said. 

Recent $5 specials at the restaurant, which is open from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, included a kosher vegetable spinach salad with tomato soup or a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup; non-kosher items included a BBQ Sloppy Joe sandwich with vegetable soup or a chicken quesadilla with lentil soup. 

On Fridays, because it’s before Shabbat, the restaurant offers only packaged kosher meals such as tuna and egg salad sandwiches alongside its non-kosher menu. 

“They are doing a wonderful job in complying with the rules of kosher and make sure it’s kosher to the highest standard,” Zuravin said.

Denison said she has heard from customers who say, “ ‘It’s so nice that I can go out to eat with a friend who might keep kosher and know that we can both go there and get what we want and that we are not limited to specific menu items.’ I think from that perspective, having both options has really been a unifier and helped to create a gathering place.”