Chabad Cafe Makes Waves in Malibu

The recently mounted mezuzah on the front door of a soon-to-be opened restaurant in Malibu is symbolic for many reasons.

It marks the first kosher eatery to open in the seaside community. It also symbolizes Chabad of Malibu’s first foray into mainstream life in a city of surfers and celebrities.

Chabad has been cultivating its surf town persona since 2001, purchasing several buildings and a house across the street from the Malibu Pier. A sign posted in front of the property portrays the silhouette of a Chabadnik riding a surfboard.

But good waves aren’t enough to attract the sun-imbued to Chabad’s way of life. So resident Rabbi Levy Cunin decided to open the recently renamed Malibu Beach Grill, hoping to tempt more taste buds than tefillin.

"Obviously, this is not Pico-Robertson," Cunin said. "And while we are offering kosher food, that doesn’t only mean matzah balls and gefilte fish. There will be beef and chicken here, too."

The restaurant is poised to open during the first two weeks of September. Workers have been scurrying about the building, taking measurements and sterilizing. Meanwhile, a temporary banner posted curbside reads, "Malibu Grill … It’s All Good."

Not so to the restaurant’s former occupants, whose last day at the location was Aug. 8.

For eight years, Malibu Chicken rented the space from Chabad, and now it claims it was evicted for a kosher restaurant that will profit from its clientele, which includes stars Adam Sandler, Barbra Streisand, Jim Carey, Meg Ryan and Pierce Brosnan. But Chabadniks say they always intended to create a kosher restaurant on the property.

"It’s not right. We were here for a long time," said Sharon Caples, who ran the restaurant with her brother, Sean Caples. "And now they are going to profit from the clientele we built up over so many years."

However, Cunin said it had always been Chabad’s intention to open a kosher restaurant in Malibu.

"And it was very difficult for me to tell Malibu Chicken that they needed to find another location," he said. "What can you do? It is not like I was closing an animal hospital."

For many, it’s the end of an institution.

Eric Gross, a local surfer, ate at Malibu Chicken a couple of times a week. He said after practically growing up on the food, saying goodbye was no easy feat.

"I used to sit and talk to the owners every day. And I’m not sure how a kosher restaurant will do here. It’s not like there are a bunch of people in Malibu searching for kosher food," said the 25-year-old, who works in a neighboring office building. "Besides, I think a lot of people are still angry about what went down."

Sean Caples’ frustration still causes a slight crack in his voice, but he would not comment about the restaurant for legal reasons. His sister, who managed Malibu Chicken, said she attempted to convert the restaurant into a kosher establishment, although several months of contacting rabbis and attempting to work with Chabad proved fruitless.

"It’s very hard to convert a restaurant to a kosher restaurant when you’re not Jewish," Caples said. "We even called on a rabbi in the Fairfax region to help us. But we were evicted before we could even begin to start the process."

Cunin agreed that converting to a kosher restaurant is especially difficult if the owners are not Jewish.

"You can’t just expect someone to have a kosher restaurant because their arms are being twisted behind their back," Cunin said. "It has to be something in your heart. Something you willingly want to do."

The rabbi does not plan to run Malibu Beach Grill. He has entered into a partnership with a Jewish businessman who will contractually own the restaurant.

However, Chabad will still charge rent and take a percentage of Malibu Beach Grill’s gross receipts. Cunin said generally 10 percent is an appropriate amount for tzedakah (charitable giving) purposes.

The search for a new Malibu Chicken location continues for Sean Caples. He still has the surf and kayak store above his former restaurant. But Cunin said Chabad’s board plans to lease the space to a new business that will still keep the surf and kayak theme.

A dry cleaners on the property adjacent to a Hebrew school will remain the only business independent of Chabad if Capel’s kayak store is evicted.

Sharon Caples said she and her brother are not certain whether they will pursue litigation should the Malibu Beach Grill be identical to their former restaurant.

"It’s just been a slap in the face to us," she said. "And the Malibu residents have been so kind over the years. We’re just sad to say goodbye."

But the greatest hurdle for Chabad has yet to be cleared.

"Malibu is a very spiritual place," Cunin said. "And I hope people come and see what we’re doing here. I’m interested in learning about surfers and their spirituality."

"I’ve always liked a good challenge," he continued. "And it is amazing how much we have in common with the people here in Malibu."