Noah's New York Bagels, the Berkeley-born chain that single-handedly introduced the word "shmear" into mainstream America's vocabulary, plans to discontinue kashrut procedures in four of its Northern California stores.
That will leave just three kosher outlets in the Bay Area, the only ones left in the state.
Come June, Noah's stores on 41st Avenue in Capitola, on East El Camino Real in Sunnyvale, Lincoln Avenue in San Jose and Fair Oaks Boulevard in Sacramento, will lose their hechsher, or kosher certification. The final three kosher Noah's — of the state's 74 stores — are on Solano Avenue in Berkeley, in Oakland's Montclair Village and on California Street in San Francisco.
"The reasoning is quite simple," said Dan Dominguez, vice president of Noah's Bagels. "As with any business, you evaluate it, and the response from customers in those particular areas has been overwhelmingly in favor of providing sandwiches and things that make Noah's a true deli."
Noah Alper, an Orthodox Jew, opened the first Noah's Bagels on Berkeley's College Avenue in 1989. By the time Alper sold his entirely kosher, 38-store chain to the Colorado-based Einstein Bagel Corporation in 1996, Noah's was the nation's largest kosher retailer. Einstein Corp., currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, expanded Noah's to as many as 113 sites before scaling back to 85 stores in California, Oregon and Washington.
Alper, for his part, described himself as "sad but not devastated" over the plight of the business that bears his name.
"Yeah, it's disappointing. It's sort of like when you sell your house and say, 'You can buy the house, but you have to keep the red curtains; they look so nice.' And the new owner says, 'I don't like red curtains,'" he said.
"My decisions were made for a combination of business and personal reasons. In their case, it's strictly business-driven. But it's not my business; they purchased the right to use my name, and they make their own business decisions."
News of the kashrut discontinuations has, not surprisingly, elicited disappointment and even some anger among observant Jews.
"For me, this is a particularly sad moment because I was the first individual Noah Alper turned to when he opened his first store and wanted advice on how to keep it kosher," said Rabbi Howard Zack, spiritual leader at Oakland's Orthodox Congregation Beth Jacob.
"To see things turn 180 degrees the other way is a sad moment," he said. "This is tremendously disturbing for kosher consumers, who already have far too few choices of kosher products. Noah's was a source of great pride within the Jewish community, both in terms of the food available and the whole 'out there' Jewish theme the stores contained."
Rabbi Yosef Levin, a mashgiach who certifies establishments as kosher through the Beis Din of San Jose, however, said he couldn't fault a business for keeping an eye on the bottom line.
"I'm ambivalent about this. On the one hand, I'm sorry we're going to have less kosher food available. It was a wonderful thing; wherever you went you could get a kosher meal," said Levin, the spiritual leader of Chabad of Greater South Bay in Palo Alto. "On the other hand, how can I blame a business that's in business to make money for making a business decision?"
The three remaining kosher stores will continue to be overseen by the Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California, whose yearly contract is due to be renewed in July. Dominguez said that each subsequent Vaad Hakashrus contract would guarantee another year of kashrut commitment.
Rabbi Ben-Tzion Welton, Vaad Hakashrus' supervising coordinator, said he is seeking a longer-term guarantee.
"We're trying to negotiate more to make sure they're not doing this as a temporary move. [Noah's] does hope these locations will always remain kosher. We want to put that in more tangible terms," he said. "The more outlying stores like the one in Capitola, we weren't surprised about. But the one in San Jose and Sacramento, we were very surprised."
Earlier this week, Rabbi Eitan Elia Julius of San Jose's Conservative Congregation Sinai began circulating an e-mail urging concerned consumers to call Noah's customer service line and register complaints. Meanwhile, Zack — while relieved the Oakland and Berkeley stores frequented by his congregants will remain kosher — said that if any Jewish leaders in the affected areas were to organize a protest, "I would certainly throw my weight behind that."
Several rabbis mentioned that it was inappropriate for an increasingly traif Noah's to continue parlaying its Jewishness as a marketing tool.
"They say you cannot dance with two women. You are kosher or you're not," said Maklouf Benchlouch, rabbi at San Francisco's Orthodox Congregation Anshey Sfard and a kashrut expert. "It used to be more homey. When they put those [Jewish-themed] pictures on the wall, they are working on people's minds."
Added Zack, "The thought of them continuing their theme of being overtly Jewish and selling traif –I think it's a travesty."
Dominguez, however, said that Jewish-themed décor (photos of bar mitzvah boys with dozens of fountain pens and wrist watches, for example) only remains at "the Orthodox stores." The non-kosher sites, he maintains, feature more general New York imagery.
Alper, too, said Noah's embracing of a New York Jewish identity is not hypocritical.
"With kosher-style delis, Jewish imagery is all over the place. That's fundamentally no different than Noah's Bagels that are unkosher," he said. "Really, the larger issue is, as a major metropolitan area, we really have a dearth of kosher establishments. It's good news they're keeping the one on Solano kosher. I live near there."
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