It may not exactly be a trend (yet), but two food establishments – Dunkin Donuts and 16 Handles – are trying to attract clientele from Brooklyn’s Chareidi community while employing hashgachas (kosher certifications) that are somewhat outside the mainstream of those generally accepted by the local population.
The new Dunkin Donuts – which recently opened at Fort Hamilton Parkway and 49th Street in Boro Park – has its kosher status overseen by National Kosher Supervision’s Rabbi Aaron Mehlman, who apparently does not feel compelled to adhere to certain halachic strictures that many purveyors of kosher food have adopted in the past few decades. “Everything in the store is under hechsher,” Rabbi Mehlman explained to Vos Iz Neias, “although it is not pas Yisroel (grain products baked by an observant Jew), and the only cholov Yisroel item available is the milk.”
Outlining the store’s policy of direct oversight, Rabbi Mehlman said that he comes in to survey the proceedings once a week, while two other mashgichim visit the site on a periodic basis. Seeking to provide reassurance about the Boro Park outlet’s kosher reliability, the rabbi emphasizes that Dunkin Donuts maintains a tight system of quality control by deploying seemingly routine customers to make spot checks in order to ascertain that every item connected with the preparation or serving of food has been obtained from the chain’s central distributor. If a violation were to be discovered, the store management would be subject to a major financial penalty, thus deterring the possibility that they might try to substitute an outside – and potentially non-kosher – item.
“Dunkin Donuts is very strict about making sure that every item in the store, from donut mixes to cheeses to cleaners – and even mop heads – are ordered from the central distributor,” said Rabbi Mehlman. “This is a highly regulated business, with constant inspection, and every keystroke entered on the register can be viewed by someone at corporate headquarters in Boston.”
The owner of the new Boro Park franchise, Ted Mavro, says that business has been good so far, noting that many staff members from the nearby Maimonides Hospital come in regularly for a cup of coffee. “I own approximately twenty Dunkin Donuts stores, including several in Flatbush,” Mavro said. “All of my kosher stores are doing very, very well.”
But Rabbi Moshe Weiner of the Kashrus Information Center, which keeps tabs on the levels of adherence at kosher establishments in Brooklyn, sounded a cautionary note about the likelihood of the new outlet to establish a strong foothold in the area. “The Chareidi community of Boro Park will not accept Dunkin Donuts due to the fact that it is not fully cholov Yisroel,” Rabbi Weiner asserted in an interview with the Jewish Voice. “National Kosher Supervision is not a mehadrin (i.e. high-level) hashgacha, so clearly Dunkin Donuts is not trying to attract the local community.”
Rabbi Weiner further pointed out that there are several non-kosher eating establishments in the immediate vicinity of the new store, which he feels is an indication that Dunkin Donuts expects to appeal more to a secular and non-Jewish clientele. While stating that every kosher supervisory agency has the right to determine its own halachic standards, the kashrut expert sounded less than enthusiastic about the new kosher eatery. “The fact is that a weekly visit by the mashgiach, which is Rabbi Mehlman’s practice, is not good enough to maintain the proper level of kashrut,” he said. “An establishment serving freshly made food needs to have a mashgiach temidi (kosher supervisor on premises). I would personally not recommend this Dunkin Donuts to the Chareidi community.”
Rabbi Moshe Elefant, the Chief Operating Officer of Kashrut at the Orthodox Union, also had strong words when asked to give his perspective on the appearance of these new hashgachas in Brooklyn. “While I can’t comment on individual hashgachas per se,” he told the Jewish Voice, “I believe that there is no reason to have food establishments in Boro Park and Flatbush which are under kosher supervisions that do not follow the highest standards of kashrut, including pas Yisroel and cholov Yisroel. First of all, there are already plenty of eateries in those neighborhoods; and secondly, the members of the Chareidi community deserve to have food outlets that adhere to the same strict standards as they do.”
Elaborating on his deeply-held beliefs in this regard, Rabbi Elefant expressed his concern over the fact that he witnesses many Chassidim entering a Dunkin Donuts on 63rd Street in Boro Park each morning to drink its coffee. “This store is open every Shabbos, so how can it have a good hashgacha?” he queried. “In the case of a cup of coffee, for example – even if the milk comes from a container that is labeled cholov Yisroel, how can one be sure that an employee there did not take such a container after it was emptied and fill it with non-cholov Yisroel milk?”
Referring to the 16 Handles frozen yogurt shop on Avenue J in Flatbush, which is under the supervision of Rabbi Chanania Elbaz of Sephardic Kashrut LeMehadrin Laboratory, the OU kashrut expert said straightforwardly that the local rabbonim “have a problem with that store’s hashgacha. These rabbis know what’s going on with local issues of kashrut, so if they recommend that their constituents not eat in such a place, the community members should follow their words.” Making a wider point, Rabbi Elefant decried the poor message that is sent to children in Orthodox families when the parents act in blatant opposition to a mandate set forward by their rabbi.
The shop’s owner, Isaac Tawil, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Summing up his views on the topic, Rabbi Elefant said that the focus here should be on the customer. “When it comes to keeping good levels of kashrut in the community,” he emphasized, “the bottom line is that the consumers control the market – if they won’t patronize stores with lower standards, then those stores will simply not survive.”