Gentile manager’s views on running kosher restaurants NYC
Before life moved me to a another state a few months ago, I was the General Manager at Talia’s and I will share some of my experiences that I can only thank Talia’s for 🙂 . Trust me, managing a kosher restaurant is an interesting experience! I helped implement many changes over the years and honestly I believe that Talia’s has grown to be one of the better kosher restaurants in the city. So let me share with you some personal stories and some restaurant ones.
In my personal life:
I like to “do my homework” so I was referred to at the restaurant as the “gentile who knows more about kosher than the average reformed Jew.” Can I help it that I am curious so I read the Passover guide provided by the OU and remembered most of it? My Israeli landlady had the most fun with me talking about Shabbat and Sukkot. She could not believe I am not Jewish. On top of that I look Jewish (or as the wife of a famous rabbi told me I have “a Jewish neshama”) so I had people tell me “Thank you for working on Shabbat so we can enjoy dinner here” or Israelis coming into the restaurant, picking me among the staff and starting to speak to me in Hebrew. I learned to “schmooze”, to recognize “schlumpers” and that when you make chulent you need kishke. I learned a lot about Jewish culture and I have executed so many Shabbat dinners that if I put on a yarmulke and read the Kiddush I will blend in nicely 🙂 .
It’s not easy to work with kosher products. I have put many hours into researching new products and fighting with purveyors to get them. I am sorry but with all due respect to the Jewish company that makes endless lines of kosher products I will pay extra for Heinz Ketchup any day over that red thing you deliver to me. Passover mustard and ketchup is something that I don’t wish anyone to deal it, even though I know you all do every year. It’s not nice to serve stuff like that to your customers, but you need to keep the religious propriety so you do your best to improve it with kosher-for-Passover ingredients and sometimes just apologize to the guests when you give it to them. The struggle is endless, but thank God that there are so many big companies who certify their products. There is only so much you can do when you have to work with low quality products and seeing that OU symbol on a major product line is always exciting 🙂 .
I know the customer is always right, but here we are not running a service so I will tell you – sometimes the customer is wrong, unreasonable, cranky, and sometimes rude to the point that they deserve to be thrown out. However, that’s where a professional attitude and a genuine love turns the situation around so even someone who came in wanting to take all his problems out on the staff will leave treated like a king. It’ s a difficult side of the business, but when you give people respect and acknowledge the fact that everyone can have a bad day, you realize that you are in the business of turning a person’s day around for the better.
In a kosher restaurant you have to differentiate between 2 customers – the Jews and everyone else. And I can tell you plenty of stories for each one. Here are a few good ones.
Gentile: A guy wrote a review saying that Talia’s is a front for the mob – irregular hours, closed on a Friday night? opens at 9 PM on a Saturday when everyone else already made a ton of money?!!! I have to admit – sounds suspicious if you don’t know anything about Shabbat and Kosher. And that was a guy who actually ate here. I’ve had people walk out once they heard it’s kosher and I had a lady tell me “This is ridiculous!” and storm off because I refused to let her have dinner in the restaurant on a Friday night. I’m sorry, you have to have a pre-paid reservation. A manager part of me cringed a bit when I calculated who much money I am turning away with the dozen or so walk-ins that try to get in every Friday. But we are kosher and we keep the Shabbat so it is what it is. Of course, you have the random steak lover from any race and nationality who just likes kosher steak because of the higher quality meat. I guess there is such thing as “steak without borders.”
The Jew: Not a drinker. In restaurants you make money not on entrees where you can make a buck or two, but on liquor. But the average Jew that comes to Talia’s is generally religious, well-behaved and drinks in moderation. It’s great because you don’t have to throw anyone out for being drunk and disorderly, but it doesn’t make the bar the profit center it usually is in this business. Also most of the waitstaff was not Jewish so they were not always dressed in the most proper way. I have had people complain about seeing too much skin here and there, which is understandable and we continuously educated our servers on the propriety of their clothing. Also I will address a common concern: yes, your ribeye is 10 oz and yes it is measured before cooking. Steak shrinks as it looses blood and water during the cooking process so I cannot give you 10 ounces of cooked steak simply because it can lose 1 oz of its weight between rare, medium and well-done.
How does the combination of Jews and Gentiles work? It can be pretty funny sometimes. I had a Saturday night party of a company. I think about 30 people, both Jews and Gentiles. So they are mingling and enjoying their drinks while waiting for the Mashgiach to come and light the fire and there is a few beautiful ladies at the bar, right in front of the entrance. They are not Jewish so they got dressed for a party – meaning one of them is wearing a short dress with no back. So what did my mashgiach do? He came to the restaurant, opened the door, saw the girl with the naked back, raised his hands to Heaven and walk-out. We had to chase him down Amsterdam Avenue. I respect his concern, but only half the party is made up of kosher eaters and while we adhere to strict standards we cannot throw someone out, especially someone who is not Jewish, because they did not adhere to standards that they are not even aware of. It is not right of us to impose on them or discriminate them. The whole story is kind of funny, but was also a bit mortifying because without a mashgiach I would have had a lot of people walk-out.
Of course, the holidays are the craziest times with people waiting and screaming for their tables because other people are taking their time with the food…ah the joys of the restaurant business. Last Christmas day we were slammed. This lady in the bar said she felt like she was watching a reality show because I was appeasing people waiting in the bar, shuffling tables, pushing the kitchen. I think what got to her was when a waiter came to me wanting to talk about a special request and I just said: “No, the answer to everything today is no!” It sounds harsh, but trust me there are requests and requests and I accommodated plenty even on a crazy day like that.
Yes, this is a crazy business and people hate it. But there is no rush like the dinner rush. Next on my bucket list – skydiving – I want to compare the adrenaline levels and will let you all know.