An adaptable feast: Jewish restaurants change with the times

Dougie’s pastrami burger
Dougie’s pastrami burger (Courtesy of Dougie’s BBQ and Grill)

Before the pandemic hit, Accents Grill, one of the kosher establishments owned by restaurateur Lara Franks, featured an in-store Shabbat carryout deli, offering traditional Jewish culinary items like cold cuts, kugel and cholent. But when it became clear customers were no longer interested in exposed food, Franks switched to offering deli and Shabbat items online and, “just for fun,” began mixing the more traditional offerings with food from all over the world.

“We saw a huge surge in popularity,” Franks said. “And when we saw that happening, we realized that, yes, while there might still be a market for traditional Shabbat and holiday foods, there’s also this huge market of people who are super excited to sit down to dinner on a Friday night and have atypical food. Not food you’d think they would be having, but food from Mexico, or food from someplace in Europe.

“And I never imagined that people would actually do that,” Franks continued. “I pretty much thought that people wanted mainstream, traditional Jewish food to sit down to on a Friday night. But I was wrong. … And now I’ve learned that you can not always anticipate what you think customers want. Until you put out new and different and unique things into the world, you don’t know what the reaction is.”

What Franks noticed was not out of the ordinary. According to those who work in the world of Jewish and kosher food, old standbys — like brisket, gefilte fish and matzah ball soup — are facing more competition, as Jewish diners actively seek out new and exciting flavors that stand in stark contrast to the traditional ones.

Dougie’s fire poppers
Dougie’s fire poppers (Courtesy of Dougie’s BBQ and Grill)

Changing habits

At Accents Grill, the staff has adapted to changing culinary tastes with the inclusion of grain bowls on the menu. These grain bowls, which can include lentils and chickpeas as well as protein choices like chicken or salmon, have proven popular.

Franks said the popularity of the grain bowls comes from a growing interest in eating healthier, a trend that has increased during the pandemic, as customers spent more time thinking about their health.

“Grain bowls are something that’s pretty trendy right now; there are some restaurant chains that just do these kinds of bowls,” said Franks, who also owns Serengeti Steakhouse and Cocoaccinos Cafe. “We can offer that to people who care about eating trendy food, in the same way as we offer matzah balls to people who want to eat more traditional fare.”

Dr. Marc Attman is both a practicing optometrist and the owner of Attman’s Delicatessen, which has two locations, including one in Baltimore City’s Jonestown neighborhood. The delicatessen has a long history stretching back to 1915, having been founded and owned by his grandfather before being passed down to his father and then to him in 2002, Attman said.

Attman has also noticed that his customers are increasingly preferring healthier foods, such as leaner cuts of meat.

Another change his deli has had to contest with has been the changing demographics of the area. Decades ago, starting in the late ‘60s, the Jewish population moved out of the city and into the suburbs. This has meant that the deli now serves more non-Jews.

“We never used to have sandwiches with cheese; now cheese is like a staple on every sandwich,” said Attman, a resident of Pikesville and member of both Chizuk Amuno Congregation and B’nai Israel. “We didn’t used to have any type of bacon; now we have bacon.”

Other changes that have proved popular include the introduction of extra-large shrimp for their shrimp salad, Attman said.

Meanwhile, schmaltz herring is no longer sold at his deli, Attman explained, as demand has plummeted.

Tradition or innovation

Despite the adaptations the deli has made to meet the wants of his customers, Attman doesn’t believe the tastes of his Jewish customers have changed that much for the most part.

“The Jewish customers know what they want; they don’t experiment a lot,” Attman said. “They know they like pastrami, they like the hot dog with the bologna and they always order it the same way.”

Aron Hertz
Aron Hertz (Courtesy of Dougie’s BBQ and Grill)

But Aron Hertz, the head manager of operations of Dougie’s BBQ & Grill and Dougie’s Catering and a resident of Pikesville, sees things differently. While there is a sense of nostalgia among customers who come for Dougie’s items they’re used to, he said, they are also looking for new and exciting foods to try.

“I’m looking forward to releasing our brand new menu, with not only some our traditional older items and Jewish items … but as well as enhancing and bringing it to the next level with the trending times of the demand for this new generation of foodies in the Jewish world,” Hertz said.

In addition to their more traditional Jewish fare, Dougie’s also offers Mexican food and sushi, which are popular with their customers, Hertz said. The restaurant is interested in bringing trends from outside of the kosher world into the kosher world.

Hertz said that Jewish customers are interested in foods they’re not accustomed to, including ethnic foods. This trend started with advertising on television and in everyday life and accelerated with the rise of the internet and smartphones, he said. He pointed to the rise of kosher Mexican restaurants or kosher Thai restaurants, like Pikesville’s Taam Thai, as evidence of this, and noted that their adherence to kosher standards allows religious communities to patronize them.

“The really religious Jews, still there are parts that choose not to have access to technology,” Hertz said. “Then you still have the regular religious Jews, or the medium religious Jews … these all have become growing into the technology phase, where now if we don’t have a phone we couldn’t do some business transactions on apps and stuff like that. So that would also steer people to being a little more worldly, experiencing new things they wouldn’t in their close knit Jewish communities.

“Marketing has gotten everywhere, not only physically, but now we have the technology and the internet to see all these different things,” Hertz continued. “If I know that I’m in the mood of, let’s say, Indian food, because I’m now aware of all these different dishes … now I’m very curious, because it’s something new that I never thought I could have or never thought I wanted to try, but now I have that option. And it’s definitely different from what I’m used to [at] my traditional kosher establishment.”

Dougie’s BBQ and Grill
Dougie’s BBQ and Grill (Courtesy of Dougie’s BBQ and Grill)

The fickle and the eternal

There are foods like sablefish that are going by the wayside, in part due to rising prices, Attman said. Rolled beef, spiced beef and noncreamed herring are also not as popular as they once were, and tongue could be next.

“If you’re under 40, I doubt you’re ordering a tongue sandwich,” Attman said.

Even gefilte fish has lost some popularity with the younger generations, Hertz said.

While Franks believes deli sandwiches have significant staying power, she said the overstuffed versions of them are not in vogue these days, and that the traditional Jewish deli is in decline as well.

“There’s not a lot of those kinds of Jewish delis left in the world,” Franks said. “People already hitting their 60s and over may have very fond memories of being able to dine in those kinds of delis, but the younger generation, because there are not so many of them around anymore, are not connected to that style of food or eating, and may never have ever eaten in a Jewish style deli.

“And so eventually those kinds of foods might age out with the population,” Franks said.

Regardless of new trends, Attman was confident that many of the traditional Jewish foods will remain popular with the community, potentially forever.

“It’s just like having a turkey on Thanksgiving, … 90 percent has turkey on Thanksgiving,” Attman said. “There’s certain foods that you eat on the holidays, or you might eat on every Friday night. That’s how we do it.”

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