Starting today, the vast majority of the 119 Noah's New York Bagels shops will no longer be kosher — a major loss for Bay Area observant Jews.
"It's certainly a blow to the kosher consumer here," said Rabbi Howard Zack of Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Oakland.
His reaction was echoed by several other local rabbis, including the one who will oversee the 10 bagelries remaining kosher. Five are in the Bay Area.
"It's a tremendous disappointment. We felt we had a real good thing going here with all these kosher stores…It's a tremendous loss for the Bay Area," said Rabbi Gedalia Meyer of the Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California, the kosher overseers.
The news, however, isn't a complete surprise. The Colorado-based Einstein Bagel Corp., which in 1996 bought out the Berkeley-born Noah's, added non-kosher items to most of its 57 eateries in Southern California, Washington and Oregon in November.
At the time, the corporation pledged to leave 62 shops in Noah's home turf — the Bay Area — alone.
Under the new plan, a minyan of shops will remain kosher in the following locations: Laurel Heights in San Francisco, Oakland's Montclair District, Solano Avenue in Berkeley, Willow Glen in San Jose, Sunnyvale, Capitola near Santa Cruz, Loehmann's Plaza in Sacramento, Fig Garden in Fresno, Pico-Beverwill in Los Angeles, and Mercer Island in the Seattle area.
Dan Dominguez, vice president of operations at Noah's West Coast headquarters in Alameda, said the switch will allow the company to add new products to the menu.
"Noah's has a great tradition. It was built on neighborhood business. We're trying to respond to our neighbors' requests," he said.
The new products, which will begin hitting the stores this summer, will include non-kosher beverages, breads, baguettes, cheeses, muffins and deli meats such as turkey.
The decision to go non-kosher came with little warning.
"We would have preferred that it was done on longer notice…We were told Friday afternoon" of last week, Meyer said.
When Noah's executives first announced the decision to go non-kosher last week, they offered to keep just a few stores kosher.
"We finagled a couple," Meyer said Wednesday morning. "We tried desperately to get more."
He added that when pressed, Noah's executives were open to keeping more stores kosher than originally planned.
The store count wasn't final until Wednesday morning.
Ben Tzion Welton, the Vaad Hakashrus supervision coordinator, said his group tried to make sure that a kosher Noah's would be within a 40-minute drive of any part of the Bay Area.
"That was our main work…as much as possible to keep at least one store kosher in areas," he said.
Dominguez concurred. "We're responding to the neighborhoods that have more kosher customers," he said.
A recent Wall Street Journal article on the bagel industry outlined increasing competition, oversaturation of markets and dropping profits for bagelries. Meyer and other kosher supervisors said that the financial crunch had hit Noah's as well.
In addition, the Einstein-Noah's Corp. hired a new CEO this year.
But Dominguez would only say the switch came out of a desire to better serve customers with more menu items.
Local rabbis who observe kashrut were universally glum about the decision.
"My overall reaction is one of sadness and disappointment…And I'm a little angry at the management," Zack said.
"When you walk into a Noah's, it has this extremely traditional Jewish feel to it, given the decor and everything else. I find it somewhat misdirected and misleading for it not to be a kosher institution with the kind of imprimatur that it's created for itself within the community."
Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman of Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, where Noah's founder once belonged, was unhappy as well.
"It's certainly been convenient to me to have some place where I could pick up kosher food and where people who had observant guests could provide a kosher meal with a minimum of fuss and bother," he said. "And visitors who asked me where they could find kosher food, it was easy to say any Noah's outlet."
Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco's Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom said he'll feel the switch "in a really practical way."
The vast majority of Jewish organization meetings he attends have been catered by Noah's.
"It's the most common way to hold a meeting with food," he said. Now, Lew predicted, those same groups will again say it's too much trouble and too expensive to provide kosher snacks or meals.
"It's going to be a big-time loss," he said.
Noah's New York Bagels opened its first shop in 1989 on College Avenue in Berkeley.
Noah Alper, an Orthodox Jew, made the eatery kosher and openly Jewish from the start. Photos of famous and not-so-famous Jews hung on the wall. He would close for Passover, and sold challah during the rest of the year. He created pamphlets on kosher laws and Yiddish.
He maintained the kosher status and atmosphere as dozens of Noah's opened across Northern California.
In 1996, Noah's merged with the Einstein Bagel Corp. Alper temporarily became the vice chairman. But he sold his multimillion-dollar share of the company and completely stepped out of the picture in late 1996.
The homey photos of Alper showing off a platter of lox and veggies remain in stores. This week, kosher pamphlets were still available as well.
The Einstein-Noah Bagel Corp. now has more than 550 outlets in 28 states under the names Noah's New York Bagels and Einstein Bros. Bagels. Boston Chicken owns 52 percent of the corporation.
Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California, which had overseen the Northern California outlets, is taking over the kosher supervision of the 10 eateries and the Whittier production plant in Southern California that creates the bagel and challah dough.
Some of that supervision in Southern California and the Pacific Northwest was previously provided by two other groups, though Meyer said he would likely subcontract with the same two groups.
The dough will be kosher when it leaves the Whittier plant. But once it hits an outlet with non-kosher products, particularly cheeses in the ovens, it will no longer be considered kosher.
Beyond the Bay Area, three outlets in Los Angeles and three in the Pacific Northwest were still fully kosher since the first wave of change in November. As of today, that will drop to one in each area.
Despite his personal disappointment, Meyer said he completely understood the decision from a business standpoint.
"Their No. 1 thing is their bottom line," he said.
Meyer warned that Bay Area Jews shouldn't boycott the remaining kosher Noah's shops.
"They'll lose them also if they don't support them," he said. "Noah's is under no obligation to provide kosher food to the Bay Area. They are only going to do it if it's profitable."
Alper, who has temporarily relocated his family to Jerusalem, said in an interview via e-mail Wednesday that he hadn't heard of the impending change.
"I am saddened by the loss of so many kosher restaurants for the Jewish community," he said. "Einstein/Noah Bagel Corp. has been responsive in the past to groups from particular stores who have petitioned them to remain kosher."
He suggested petitioning local stores and the corporation in Colorado.
"It's not over till it's over. If people call up and express interest, who knows?"