After Doheny Kosher scandal, what does the future hold for L.A.’s meat market?

On Thursday, March 7, at 6:10 a.m., a van and an SUV sit in adjacent parking spaces, in the lot of a McDonald’s near the junction of the 101 and the 405 freeways, their rear lift-gates open.
April 3, 2013

[UPDATE: Orthodox L.A. philanthropist buys Doheny meats]

On Thursday, March 7, at 6:10 a.m., a van and an SUV sit in adjacent parking spaces, in the lot of a McDonald’s near the junction of the 101 and the 405 freeways, their rear lift-gates open. 

Mike Engelman, the driver of the SUV, with the help of the driver of the van, loads something into the back of the SUV. Then Engelman, who owns Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market, one of Los Angeles’ largest distributors of kosher animal products, drives off, headed to Pico-Robertson to open his shop. 

Almost exactly one hour later, in the parking lot behind Doheny Meats, the mashgiach (rabbinic overseer) from the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), who had unlocked the doors to the store and the distribution center just 10 minutes earlier, is nowhere in sight.  Engelman signals to an employee to unload the SUV. The employee takes out eight boxes, hundreds of pounds of unidentified meat or poultry, and wheels them into the store through its rear door.

This entire sequence was captured on video by a private investigator, and on Sunday afternoon, March 24, Rabbi Meyer H. May, president of the RCC, watched the video in horror. What he saw wasn’t just Engelman undermining the supervision of his agency; he also saw the rabbinic supervisor, who is never supposed to leave the premises, break with RCC protocol. 

All this was revealed on March 24, the day before Passover. At sundown the following day, hundreds of local families at their own seder tables, as well as thousands of customers at resorts across the region, would be sitting down to eat their traditional Passover meals featuring meat and poultry that had passed through Doheny’s doors. 

May and his rabbinic colleagues at the RCC revoked Doheny’s certification. They  also declared at the same time that all meat sold by Doheny Meats up until 3 p.m. that day could still be considered kosher. 

The aftermath of this scandal is still playing out, but it has already rocked Los Angeles’ kosher industry in a way that hasn’t happened since 1990, when the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) removed its certification from Emes Kosher Meat Products after a rabbinic supervisor found an empty box in the store’s dumpster that had come from a non-kosher poultry supplier. 

This time the scandal implicates both Doheny Meats, believed to be among the largest distributors of kosher animal products on the West Coast, and the RCC, a prominent and widely trusted kosher certifier. As a result, the scandal could have far-reaching consequences. 

If Engelman intentionally circumvented his mashgiach, as the videos appear to indicate, Engelman’s business, which he has owned for 28 years, will likely never regain the RCC’s imprimatur, let alone the trust of kosher consumers, and could be forced to close. The case is also a black eye for the RCC, in part because its protocols appear to have been breached on multiple occasions, and also because the breach was not discovered by the rabbis themselves, but by a private investigator who says he was working independently. 

Further complicating the matter, the RCC also had received tips about suspicious practices at Doheny years before this scandal broke — the agency says its own investigations turned up no evidence of wrongdoing — a fact that leaves many local observant Jews questioning whether the RCC is up to the task of supervising the approximately 100 kosher restaurants, markets and caterers that bear its hechsher (seal of approval) across the city. 

Within the Los Angeles Jewish community, the incident has sparked all sorts of old rivalries and pushed a number of local Jewish leaders to battle over some long-standing ideological disagreements. More facts may yet emerge, and multiple parties are currently consulting with legal advisers to consider whether to take the matter to court. This story will no doubt have a long lifespan, continuing to unfold over the weeks and months ahead.

The once-beloved butcher

Mike Engelman used to be known as the butcher with the highest-quality kosher meat and poultry in Pico-Robertson. His store is located within a 10-minute walk of four major kosher markets, and Doheny Meats serves as both a supplier and a stand-alone shop that carries animal products — including rare meats like bison and elk — and little else. The  employees’ white hats and aprons, the sparkling white display case, the thick white paper in which cuts of meat are wrapped — the entire shopping experience there feels like a throwback to a time when most people knew their butchers by name. 

Which is what it was: Doheny has been around for more than 50 years, and Engelman made good service a selling point. Whole chickens bought from Doheny, for instance, were passed through an open flame to singe any stray feathers off of the skin. Doheny delivered its products locally, but also drew customers from other cities. At one point in the early 1990s, Doheny was making monthly deliveries to a synagogue in the South Bay and, according to the store’s Web site, which, as of April 1, had been taken down, Doheny had scheduled a delivery to a buying club in San Diego in March and was set to make similar shipments to the San Francisco Bay Area as well. 

It was Engelman’s success on the distribution side — selling to caterers, markets, restaurants and hotels, including luxury venues like the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, which made up the majority of the volume of his business — that raised suspicions. 

“In the kosher business in Los Angeles, everyone’s a competitor and everybody works together,” said Daryl Schwarz, who owned Kosher Club, a retailer and distributor of kosher meats that closed its doors on Pico in 2011 after more than 20 years in business. “Even though you could hate each other on a Monday, if somebody needs a product and you’ve got it, you’ll sell it to him.”

Schwarz said that while he would frequently find himself calling around to other markets to see if they had a particular kind of product in stock, Engelman always seemed to have whatever he needed. 

“There’s only so much meat on a cow,” Schwarz said, “and Mike was never out of anything.”

Eric Agaki, the private investigator who shot the footage that has brought Doheny to its knees, said that it was complaints from disgruntled local distributors (though not Schwarz) and from a few rabbis that led him to start investigating, beginning around Rosh Hashanah 2012. 

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