Big changes are afoot for L’Chaim Foods, and CEO Alex Shandrovsky, known as “the sushi rabbi,” is ready to talk about them.
As the rabbi moves with his family back to Israel later this summer — which was always his plan, he says — L’Chaim Foods will be starting a new culinary academy and launching a promising new product while continuing to make, sell and deliver kosher sushi. Shandrovsky will run the business remotely, returning to the Bay Area every month, for now.
He is proud of what he’s accomplished in five years, both in terms of sales (more than $1 million last year, he says) and the connections he’s made with the non-Orthodox Jewish community that doesn’t keep kosher.
Shandrovsky, 31, first appeared in J. in 2013 when he launched L’Chaim Sushi from the kosher kitchen at Adath Israel Congregation in San Francisco. He founded the business as a vehicle for education, leading a number of community workshops, and also because as a Russian immigrant to San Francisco who wasn’t religious growing up, he had developed a passion for sushi and missed it once he began keeping kosher.
L’Chaim Sushi — its platters of sushi and maki rolls are made without shellfish to satisfy kosher laws — quickly became a staple at Jewish fundraising galas and events like the opening night party for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
Shandrovsky later changed the name to L’Chaim Foods and added new features, including a Passover menu, kosher pop-ups and home delivery of preset meals. But sushi has remained his mainstay, and L’Chaim still provides it to offices, tech companies and Jewish events.
The rabbi made aliyah as a young man and moved to the U.S. with his Israeli wife, but he’s always thought about when they would return with their children. That time has come, he says, but the question of “How do I leave and expand the company?” was on his mind.
“I needed a larger social mission than just being kosher,” he concluded.
Given that he had visited prisons as part of his rabbinical work, he decided to focus on helping those in need of a second chance in life. He sought advice from the Delancey Street Foundation, a restaurant and moving company that provides job training and opportunities to ex-convicts, the homeless, former substance abusers and others. Shandrovsky has made several hires out of that program.
He is teaming up with chef Alex Kim to launch the L’Chaim Academy, which will teach culinary skills to this population starting in August. Kim is a seasoned sushi chef who has been a L’Chaim consultant from the start.
I needed a larger social mission than just being kosher.
In addition to making sushi, the academy students will learn to make a new L’Chaim product, high-end bento boxes known as ekiben, traditionally sold at Japanese train stations. The boxes have compartments for small portions of a variety of kosher dishes. Each item is cooked using different techniques, which will allow students to learn a range of skills.
While dairy is not ordinarily used in Japanese cuisine, kosher laws dictate that meat and fish can’t be mixed in the same dish.
“We are still going to be kosher,” Shandrovsky says, “but being kosher could now be a [branding] liability for us. In terms of the school, we need to teach about allergens, and kosher is a spiritual allergen.”
While the kitchen will keep fish away from meat — for example, there will be no meat cooked in dashi, a Japanese broth made with bonito (tuna) flakes — “we don’t want people to know it’s kosher. We’re about second chances, we’re not about kosher anymore.”
Shandrovsky expects the ekiben business to take off because few other companies currently offer this type of item, and it’s perfect for catering because it’s served at room temperature.
While he assumes he will lose Jewish customers who are aware he has ex-convicts and others working for L’Chaim, he believes that some people will seek him out because they like his mission. And he has confidence in his partners, one of whom is continuing to head the sushi catering operation, and Kim, who is starting up the school.
An immigrant from South Korea, Kim says he is joining the company for many reasons, even though it means a pay cut from his job as a sushi chef. Topping the list is that he’s seen Shandrovsky grow from knowing nothing about the catering business to becoming someone he truly believes in.
Kim also believes the academy will allow him a greater work-life balance, with no more restaurant shifts until midnight. He also likes the idea of helping others; he says he was “a stupid guy” when he got started in the restaurant game, but a mentor helped turn things around for him both professionally and away from the job.
The most personal reason for making the move, Kim says, is because of his 8-year-old daughter, who proudly tells everyone that her father is a chef.
“I began wondering how can I use my talent to help society,” he says, “and I want my daughter to see that I’m doing something to help people who need a second chance.”