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Kosher restaurants in St. Louis face numerous challenges — here’s how owners are adapting

The two women had just finished lunch when a reporter pounced, peppering them with questions.

“What did you think of the food?” 

“How was the service?” 

“Would you come back again?”

And then, “Do either of you keep kosher?”

“I’m not even Jewish,” Ann Barker replied, chuckling. Her companion, Elaine Greenbaum, is Jewish, but does not keep kosher. 

As it turned out, the women were making a return visit to Café Coeur, the area’s first Japanese-Italian fusion restaurant certified kosher by the Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis, which oversees kashrut operations here. The dairy and fish restaurant is located at 10477 Old Olive Street in Creve Coeur, in a strip shopping center a few doors down from Kohn’s Kosher Meat & Deli. 

Barker, who lives in Chesterfield, first ate at Café Coeur because she had received a discount coupon in the mail. She had no idea the restaurant was kosher, though she said that didn’t matter. 

Greenbaum, who lives in Clayton, initially came after dropping her son off at the nearby Jewish Community Center. She noticed the new eatery en route and thought she’d try it before picking her son up from the J. 

On this particular day, their second visit, Greenbaum had the roasted beet salad with bleu cheese, poached pears and pecans. Barker chose a “small plate” loaded with fried cremini, shiitake and oyster mushrooms. Both gave their dishes high marks for quality, taste and portion size. They also noted the cleanliness of the restaurant but felt the service could be improved.

Still, both said they would eat there again and tell their friends about it.

“I’m thrilled it’s here,” Greenbaum said. “The menu is healthy and pretty varied. My husband brought a couple of his observant friends here and they, too, were happy that St. Louis finally has a kosher, sit-down restaurant open for lunch and dinner.”

Given the challenges that come with opening a kosher restaurant, Café Coeur will likely need not only customers who keep kosher but also ones like Greenbaum and Barker in order to succeed. 

Not for the faint of heart

Opening a restaurant, be it kosher or non-kosher, is a risky business given food and labor costs, safety and sanitation concerns and tight operating margins. Some studies say that nearly 60 percent of all restaurants fail within the first year, and 80 percent don’t last beyond five. Other studies put the first-year fail rate at closer to 20 percent.

Regardless, keeping tables full and customers coming back is not for the faint of heart.  Among the most important factors: Food and service must be consistently stellar, and the ambiance must be appealing. 

In the case of kosher, there are the added challenges of maintaining the restaurant’s kashrut certification, which requires employing a mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, as well as having to be closed most of the weekend between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. Typically, those nights are the most popular for eating out.

“Between weekends and Jewish holidays, how do you expect to be successful when you are closed for business 100 days of the year?” asked Gershon Schwadron, a former St. Louisan living in Boca Raton, Fla. where he runs a kosher catering business.

From 2004 to 2007, Schwadron owned Shmeers Café in University City, a kosher dairy restaurant. 

Jon Rubin, who owned Empire Steak Building, a kosher-certified meat restaurant in University City from 2001 to 2004, says while running a kosher restaurant is challenging, he believes it can be done successfully in St. Louis. He also thinks it’s probably easier today to get supplies from kosher distributors in a more timely fashion and at less of a mark-up than when he had his restaurant. 

“We had 70 different menu items, and it was hard to get everything we needed every week,” said Rubin, who now runs Jon Rubin kosher catering. “I think if we had the catering business then that we have now, it would have helped. It’s important to build all streams of revenue.”

If anyone knows about building and sustaining a kosher food business, it’s Lenny Kohn, whose family has been in the industry since 1963. In addition to a kosher grocery store, retail meat section and a dine-in area, Kohn’s deli operates a thriving catering business as well as kosher cart stands at Busch Stadium and the Enterprise Center. 

Still, Kohn says, vital to the success of any kosher establishment in St. Louis is that it’s also patronized beyond only kosher or Jewish customers. 

“I’d say half my lunch business is nonkosher and 90 percent of my business at the stadiums is non-Jewish,” he said. “We are always trying to reach beyond the kosher community.”

Café Coeur takes root

Café Coeur came about through a shidduch of sorts, with Chabad Rabbi Yosef Landa and his wife, Shiffy, playing matchmaker.

As the story goes, Yaniv Sides, a New York-based restaurateur and 17-year veteran of the New York Police Department, found himself stranded in St. Louis with two of his sons right before Sabbath a couple of years ago.

When he got in touch with Chabad, Landa invited Sides and his boys to dinner, during which they got to talking about the lack of kosher dining options here.

“I was really shocked St. Louis didn’t have a kosher restaurant that stayed open for dinner,” said Sides, who has four kosher restaurants in New York City and Long Island. “There’s not even a kosher pizzeria here.” 

Landa agreed, knowing many members of the local observant Jewish community wanted a kosher restaurant that stayed open for lunch and dinner — a comfortable place where they could enjoy a meal with family and friends as well as conduct business.

“A kosher restaurant is an important piece of Jewish communal life. It’s essential. It’s critical, ” said Landa. “Otherwise kosher observant people don’t have a place to socialize, be it with other observant Jews or anyone else who is Jewish or not. All kinds of good things happen when Jews get together, especially over food. It’s a necessary part of a Jewish community’s infrastructure.”

Landa knew Moshe and Chana Plotnik, an observant couple living in Chesterfield, were looking for a restaurant opportunity in St. Louis and wanted a partner. Moshe Plotnik had managed nursing homes for MGM Healthcare, and Chana had run the kitchen at Missouri Torah Institute. 

Landa connected the couple with Sides and brought in Rabbi Zvi Zuravin, executive director of the Vaad here, for his counsel. And so the seeds of Café Coeur were planted.

The growing period, better known as construction and securing permits, took longer than expected, but in April, the 2,300-square-foot kosher eatery opened. The interior boasts a casual contemporary vibe with high ceilings, an open-concept kitchen, and booth and table seating for roughly 60 diners. A small bar area near the kitchen serves a wide range of cocktails along with a sampling of kosher wines and a limited selection of sake and beer.

A few months ahead of opening, the partners hired Matthew R. Dawson as executive chef. Dawson, who jokes that he’s been asked 100 times if he’s Jewish (he’s not), attended the now-shuttered L’Ecole Culinaire in St. Louis and most recently served as executive chef at River City Casino before answering an advertisement for the Café Coeur job.

“All of my training led me to this position,” said Dawson, who worked in several area restaurants, including the former Brandt’s in U. City. “I started off studying Japanese cuisine and then progressed along in my career studying a lot of different styles, which led me to veganism cuisine, which led me to kosher. Eventually, all those things came together, and I met Moshe and Yaniv and we connected.”

Sides credits Dawson as the brains behind Café Coeur’s Japanese-Italian fusion menu, which the chef describes as “pescatarian, with many vegan and vegetarian options.” 

In addition to small, shareable plates and larger entrees, there’s a variety of handcrafted pizzas as well as a dizzying array of sushi options. The latter includes more than two-dozen specialty rolls and a half-dozen vegan ones, as well as sashimi and nigiri. 

Dawson says that all of the fish, including sushi grade quality tuna, salmon and yellowtail, comes with the skin on and is removed under kosher supervision. The special sauce, so to speak, is in the preparation, whereby Dawson and his staff work to marry fresh ingredients with unique flavor profiles and execute them artfully. 

One example is Japanese-inspired okonomiyaki-style pizza, which tops shredded cabbage, bean sprouts and carrots with sweet okonomi sauce, over-easy eggs and Japanese mayo. For his trumpet mushroom scallops, Dawson cuts thick, tubular mushrooms to resemble scallops, then places them atop a bed of edamame puree adorned with roasted corn, fried sweet potato slivers, pickled enoki mushrooms, shiso and balsamic.

“Kosher doesn’t have to mean restrictive,” Dawson said. “In fact, I would say that we have more delicious fish, vegetarian and vegan options than many other restaurants in St. Louis, period. I’m a firm believer of never being stagnant, my menu changes seasonally. We are always experimenting and asking for feedback from our customers.”

Getting the word out

Of course, in the restaurant business it all comes down to customers and their continued support. 

“We know we need non-kosher customers to grow,” Chana Plotnik said. “We’re marketing the restaurant as Japanese-Italian fusion that happens to be kosher.”

Marketing is a big part of Café Coeur’s strategy. It has an active social-media presence, especially on Instagram, with new posts and stories added frequently. Dawson and Moshe Plotnik have promoted the restaurant on television, sent food to radio stations and offered discount coupons through direct mail.

“This fall, I am going to be one of the competing chefs at Taste of St. Louis,” said Dawson, referring to the mid-September downtown event that pits eight local restaurant chefs against one another. “I’m always reaching out to the various foodie groups — vegan, veggie, hipster foodies. I’ve been part of the St. Louis food scene for much of my life, so I’m pretty plugged in.”

Sides says business has steadily increased since the opening. Also picking up, he adds, is Café Coeur’s kosher catering, with several more parties on the books. This week, an afternoon and late-night happy hour menu kicks in.

Moshe Plotnik is upbeat about Café Coeur’s future.

“I need to be,” he said, smiling. “We have a 10-year lease.”