Noahs Bagels to eliminate kosher outlets in California

The news, spread by e-mail chains and word of mouth within the kosher community, was greeted with sadness and frustration.

"Because they were Jewish and kosher people did business with them. We used to get free bagels for our Shabbos programs and camps," said Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of S.F.

"It was a great, charitable kosher place that we advised people coming into the city [to visit]. If you wanted a bagel and lox or a dozen bagels, that was really nice. It's disheartening that we won't be able to go to Noah's anymore."

Noah Alper, an Orthodox Jew, opened the first Noah's on Berkeley's College Avenue in 1989. When he sold the 38-store chain to Einstein Bagels in 1996, Noah's was the largest kosher retailer in the nation. Einstein expanded to hundreds of outlets up and down the West Coast, gradually dropping kashrut observance in all but a handful of stores. At the time, the chain was going bankrupt because of over-expansion.

In May 2001, Einstein — which has since been acquired by New World Restaurants — discontinued kashrut in four stores, leaving only five kosher outlets on the West Coast. Now, the sole kosher Noah's in the nation is in Seattle.

At the time, Noah's guaranteed that it would maintain kashrut in the three Bay Area outlets for only one year, so Vaad overseers weren't surprised to hear their services were no longer necessary.

"This is very sad; it's the end of an era, so to speak," said kosher overseer Rabbi Ben-Tzion Welton. "It's a great thing they've done for the community and we wish they'd continue it, but, you know, bottom line, once you choose to be kosher, you have certain obligations. Like when you get married you have certain obligations. If you choose to get a divorce, then people get a divorce."

Dan Dominguez, Noah's vice president, said it was not a "dollars and cents" decision to nix the kosher stores but a matter of being unable to stock the outlets.

He said Noah's could not find a kosher distributor willing to supply the relatively low volume of goods needed.

Also, because ingredient changes and other factors could lead the Vaad to declare products unkosher at short notice, Dominguez said it was difficult to maintain business ties with distributors.

"We were just flat-out unable to supply our stores and I can't run them just on bagels. This is very sad because we've had so many loyal customers over the years. I see the folks in the stores, and this is a sad day. It's the end for a tradition of what Noah started here."

Alper, who lives near the Solano Avenue Noah's, said it is a "sad day for the traditional Jewish community," questioning the wisdom of completely discontinuing kosher services.

"With all of the other stores going unkosher, those who follow dietary laws have been funneled to these remaining locations," he said, adding that there are very few outlets in the Bay Area that serve those who keep kosher.

"People are upset and disappointed and that's the long and short of it. I'm not sure [Noah's] is fully sensitive to the needs of the Jewish community. They look at the bottom line and make the decision accordingly. But, even from a bottom-line perspective, I'm not sure this is so good a decision."

While the three Noah's outlets are losing kashrut status, Dominguez noted that the corporation's bakery in Whittier would remain kosher, leaving open the possibility of kosher stores, organizations and even individuals ordering directly from the company.

Some are hoping that letters and phone calls may change the corporation's mind. Oakland's Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation broke the news to members via a mass e-mail, and one congregant, Ephraim Greenwall, has kicked off a letter-writing campaign.

"I've spread [the e-mail] out to everyone who'd think this is important," he said. "I've had five e-mails back saying people have called and spread the word, and I'm sure more people have called."

Dominguez said comments could be directed to Noah's hotline at (800) 224-3563.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.