A Hole in Kosher L.A.
By deciding to introduce meat products into itsformerly all-dairy outlets, Noah’s Bagels has provoked a strongresponse from observant Jewish noshers
By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor
You can tinker with the “classic” Coke recipe, add color to thegray New York Times, but don’t mess with my kosher Sunday-morninghangout. That’s the message observant Jews have been sending toNoah’s Bagels since the Northern California-based company decided tointroduce meat products into its formerly kosher, all-dairy LosAngeles outlets Nov. 1.
First, a bit of bagel background may be in order: Noah’s Bagels,which sells deli salads, knishes, lox, cream cheeses and Jewishbakery items, was originally a private company run by its founder,Noah Alper. In February 1996, Noah’s was bought by Einstein Bros.Bagels Corp., and the joint enterprise went public in August of thatyear. Boston Chicken is now the corporation’s majority shareholder.
Today, Noah’s familiar logo remains, dotting storefronts up anddown the West Coast. Here in Los Angeles, Noah’s attracts briskweekend traffic to its many outlets, several of which are situated inthe same sorts of trendy retail nexuses that house Starbucks Coffee,Tower Records and various juice shops.
The abrupt change in the kosher foodie landscape caused by Noah’smenu changeover has provoked strong community response in areas wherethere is a critical mass of observant Jewish noshers. Two Noah’sstores are in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Another is on Beverlyand Detroit, adjacent to Hancock Park. Both areas are home to highconcentrations of Orthodox Jews, who have stayed away from Noah’ssince the decision.
Gary Narin, a resident of Beverlywood and a Modern Orthodox Noah’sdevotee, has been active in trying to resolve this conflict overcorporate bagel kashrut. Along with other members of thePico-Robertson community, he contacted Noah’s main office about theNovember decision, urging the company to maintain kashrut at thoselocations that serve an observant clientele. Noah’s agreed to keepthe stores at Beverwil and Pico, Olympic and Doheny, and Beverly andDetroit as all-dairy restaurants.
So what’s the beef? When deli meats were introduced at thecompany’s other Southland sites, Rabbinical Council of Californiarabbis felt compelled to withdraw Noah’s local certification acrossthe board. Rabbi Abraham Union of the RCC was unavailable for commentat press time, but lay people affiliated with the board have venturedthat part of the reason the RCC no longer wanted to certify thosethree stores was because of the potential for confusion and erroramong customers who would be patronizing a bagel chain that waskosher in some neighborhoods and treif in others.
Another factor blocking certification is the issue of whetherNoah’s would agree to close on Shabbat. Although it’s a publicly heldfirm that’s not obligated by Jewish law to do so, the November menuchanges prompted the RCC to regard each outlet as a separate shop tobe considered individually, according to Dr. Mark Goldenberg, a laymember of the RCC. Noah’s is not willing to close down on Saturdays,so progress has been stalled. For the time being, these three dairyNoah’s are in uncertified kosher limbo, a status that disturbs Narinfor reasons that go beyond the loss of a good onion bialy.
“We were a little frustrated because they were losing theircertification, and it’s not because we couldn’t find a kosher bagel,”Narin said. “That’s not it at all. Noah’s was a great meetingplace…a place where all Jews could eat together.”
Narin said that he’s committed to building bridges between theOrthodox and non-Orthodox communities. And, in its own way, heexplained, Noah’s was part of that positive effort. “In my mind, itwas like a little Jewish community center, where everyone could sitand have a cup of coffee and a bagel. Non-Orthodox Jews who may notgravitate to other kosher places would go there…. In some ways,Noah’s did as much good in the community as some synagogues orFederation projects. It really became known as a gathering place.”
Narin is quick to point out that representatives from Noah’s wereresponsive to his complaints. At its Irvine and Granada Hillslocations, the company decided to maintain kashrut after the Jewishcommunities in those areas lobbied hard for them to do so.Certification didn’t come through the RCC, of course, but byindependent rabbinic supervision, something Noah’s is now shoppingfor in order to get its Pico-Robertson and Hancock Park outletsrecertified.
“The way we found independent supervision for the stores inGranada Hills and Irvine is through people in those communities whocontacted their rabbis, who then contacted us,” said Sydney DrellReiner, Noah’s director of community relations. “We’re still lookingfor supervision for the other three stores, and we’d like to get thatdone as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet.Frankly, we’re open to suggestions.”
Why bother with meat at all if it’s going to cause such abyzantine bagel brouhaha? The answer, of course, is dough, and notthe chewy kind. Kosher consumers are a minority of Noah’s diversecustomer base. According to Reiner, “Noah’s made the decision inOctober, based on the requests of a vast number of our customers –about 90 percent — who wanted us to expand our menu to include morechoices for breakfast and lunch. So in Seattle, Portland and LosAngeles, we introduced those products, which are doing quite well bythe way. But we always had the intention of maintaining koshersupervision at other outlets, as we do in Northern California.”
In other parts of the Los Angeles region where Noah’s serves asignificant Jewish clientele — such as Studio City, Sherman Oaks andSanta Monica, to name a few — there has been a low-level lamentabout the menu changeover too. Is it too late for those neighborhoodsto lobby for continued kosher status? Not at all, said Reiner. “We’reopen. We’re real open.”
Customers may call the company at 1-800-931-NOAH.
The Real Noah Speaks Out
By Robert Eshman,
Go into any Noah’s New York Bagels these days, order a roast beefwith Swiss cheese, and they’ll give it to you, faster than you canspell Leviticus. The treifing of Noah’s, at one time the most visibleand contemporary of kosher food outlets, has upset many observantJews, and has even inspired organized protest (see accompanyingstory). Among those who are most upset: Noah himself.
Speaking with The Journal by phone from Jerusalem, Noah Alperwants to make it perfectly clear that he is no longer affiliated withthe chain that bears his name. “I get a feeling if the public werepolled, most of them would say, ‘He’s still in the back room makingbagels,'” said Alper. “I’d like to let the public know I’m notassociated with the business.”
Alper sold Noah’s to Einstein Bros. Bagels Corp. in 1996 andstayed on to help with the transition. But last February, he resignedfrom the board and went on to fulfill a lifelong dream: studyingJudaism in Israel.
“I’m over here making up for everything I never learned,” saidAlper. Last summer, he moved with his wife, Hope, and two children toa rented home in the German Colony section of Jerusalem. Alper’soldest son attends Brandeis University. The family expects to returnto their Bay Area home in July.
Alper, 50, takes classes at the Pardes Institute for JewishLearning, a progressive, traditional Jewish studies center headed byRabbi Daniel Landes, the former senior rabbi at Congregation B’naiDavid Judea in Los Angeles.
As he leads a more observant life, the stores that bear Alper’sname have become decidedly less observant. Alper said that he canunderstand the thinking behind it — Orthodox customers neveraccounted for more than 5 percent to 10 percent of sales. Even so,the corporate decision was made after he left the board.
Alper said his insistence that his stores keep kosher was nevermotivated by the bottom line. From the store’
s founding in 1989,Alper wanted Noah’s to reflect the joy and richness of Jewish life,and being kosher was part of that. His stores resembled tiled LowerEast Side delis. Their walls were adorned with photos from the Jewishpantheon– the Brooklyn Dodgers, Golda Meir, rebbes and radicals, andeven Alper family photos.
The overall effect certainly created strong brand identity.Einstein’s bought Noah’s 35 stores for $100 million (Alper receivedabout $10 million). The corporation paid the same price for more than300 Bruegger’s Bagels outlets. Noah’s was a marketing phenomenon,like Gap or Starbucks, which owned 20 percent of the chain. WhileEinstein’s corporate M.O. has been to buy up bagel chains and renamethe stores, it left the Noah’s name untouched, even opening numerousnew locations. Einstein’s was paying for a well-tended image –something more valuable than bagel-vending real estate.
Those who know Alper say that the Noah’s image accuratelyreflected the man. Murray Kalis, whose Pacific Palisades advertisingagency Kalis & Savage designed many of Noah’s ads and brochures,said Alper took his store’s commitment to Jewish communal lifeseriously. When visiting Los Angeles, he made sure to attend servicesat Temple Mishkon Tephilo on Main Street in Venice, just down thestreet from the company’s first Santa Monica store, and he donatedprofits and goods from his stores to local Jewish charities.
Now Noah Alper is, by his own admission, out of the loop. “I takemy kids to school and soccer practice,” said Alper, “and I study.”
Of course, even as he deepens his understanding of his heritage,he has had time to sample the bagels of Israel. “They’re not bad,” hesaid, “but I don’t think they’re as good as Noah’s.”