Keeping It Real
Market and Deli
4100 Minnetonka Blvd.,
St. Louis Park
3238 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
When he was a kid growing up in St. Louis Park, Stewart Fishman and his family would sometimes go out to eat at the old Boulevard Del. They served kosher-style food there: matzo ball soup, corned beef, bialys, knishes.
Fishman loved the food at the Boulevard, and at other now-defunct local delicatessens like Bernie's and the Lincoln Del. It was Jewish comfort food--warm, reassuring, and ethnically correct--but none of it, save the pickles and the packaged dry goods sold in the markets, was certified kosher.
This didn't mean much to young Fishman. He was Jewish, but like most Minnesota Jews, he didn't grow up in a kosher household. Later, he went away to college in Boston, and his interest in observing the laws of Judaism grew. "When I was in college I started keeping kosher a little bit," Fishman recalls. "As the years passed, I got more and more committed to it."
In a big East Coast city like Boston, with its large Jewish population and seemingly unlimited number of kashrut-approved restaurants, bakeries, and markets, keeping kosher wasn't such a big deal. Later, Fishman moved to Madison to finish his engineering degree, and then back home to Minnesota. He and his family kept kosher at home, and practiced a "modified" version in restaurants.
"Like many people who keep kosher, I would go to a restaurant and eat vegetarian food," Fishman says. One of the basic principals of kosher is not mixing meat and dairy. The processing of kosher meat also needs to be overseen by a rabbi, so many kosher Jews eat only vegetarian food at restaurants.
"It was okay. It was what I was used to," Fishman says. "But I missed having places nearby where everything was kosher, where I could eat meat dishes, where I didn't have to scan the labels or investigate the recipes."
Then, in 1995, Fishman was laid off from his job as an electrical engineer, and a friend suggested that he get into the deli business. "To tell the truth, it wasn't my dream," Fishman laughs. "I've always loved food, but I never pictured myself in the food business. We had this neighborhood store, and the guy who owned it was running into a lot of competition from the big mega grocery stores. He had put in a small selection of kosher foods, and a lot of people in the neighborhood were shopping there."
But the store's owner was having health problems and planning to sell the business--or even shut it down. Fishman knew that losing such a resource would be a blow to the St. Louis Park neighborhood. He offered to buy the store. He just had to raise the money.
"I contacted area synagogues, collected addresses, and sent out letters to people we thought were kosher," he says. "I also called them. The idea was that they could help me with the down payment for the store if they gave me money, $500 or $1,000. I promised that I would pay them back with groceries over the years. The response was overwhelmingly positive."
So positive that Fishman collected $70,000, bought the store, and beefed up its kosher offerings. "The money came from the community at large--not just the orthodox community," he says. Fishman's Kosher opened in January 1995, offering a small selection of dry groceries, a deli, and a butcher shop. The spot quickly became a neighborhood favorite.
"We had a little deli counter," Fishman recalls. "But we didn't really have enough space. What people wanted was a place where they could shop and get something to eat."
In 2001, the store moved a few blocks down into the old Lincoln Del building on Minnetonka Boulevard. In addition to standbys, Fishman's now has an on-site bakery where they make sweets and challah. "Our challah is earning quite a reputation," Fishman says. "I've got people who drive 20 miles one way every Friday just to get a loaf or two."
Fishman's counter-service deli can seat up to 50, and in October 2001, he hired Culinary Institute of America-trained chef Ron Procenko, former executive chef at Murray's, to oversee his food service division. "Ron's not Jewish," Fishman says. "He came here because he wanted to learn something new. He wanted to be able to use his creative talents to adapt recipes to meet kosher standards."
One of Procenko's innovations was the kosher buffet, with themed offerings like Oriental, Italian, and Hanukkah, with sweet and sour meatballs, potato latkes, and zucchini gelt. "Our customers sometimes want a break from the regular deli fare," Fishman says. "We want to show people that there are many ways to prepare kosher foods."
Fishman's also caters bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, anniversaries, and funerals, but wants to emphasize that his customer base isn't limited to Minnesota's 45,000 Jews. "We don't cater just to kosher consumers," Fishman says. "Our marketing is largely geared towards the greater community. We serve good food that's kosher--rather than kosher food that's good."
Because the kosher community is still small--one study estimates that 2 percent of the Twin Cities Jewish community actively observes kosher food laws--Fishman is on a first-name basis with his best customers. When someone calls to find out if he has any pickled tongue, he replies, "I have raw tongue. I don't have pickled right now, but I can order a pickled one for you. It'd be here in a day or two."
Fishman believes that this kind of personal service will be what continues to set him apart from the big stores, which seem of late to be taking an interest in the kosher community. Last month, for instance, Byerly's St. Louis Park store opened an all-kosher department with kashrut-approved meat, bakery, and dry goods.
Since Minnesota's kosher offerings are so limited, Fishman hasn't encountered much competition in the 11 years he's been in business, but he's taking this latest development in stride.
"I believe in capitalism," he says. "But I also know the independent store plays an important role in our society. If we do a good job, we will stay in business. People like a hamish environment, and we've got that in spades."
Before Israeli-born Teddy Nachmias opened Little Tel-Aviv, the restaurant was called Calypso. Calypso was kosher, too, Nachmias explains, but the food and the atmosphere were completely different.
Nachmias wants to make that distinction clear, because he and his family put much time and effort into creating a restaurant that reminded him of home.
"The old restaurant that was here was good, but now I'm serving Israeli food exactly like you'd have it in Israel," he explains. "That's the way they make it there and that's the way I do it here. That's what sets me apart. We want customers to know that at Little Tel-Aviv they have an opportunity to taste the flavors of Israel."
Nachmias moved to Minnesota 13 years ago. He's kept kosher his whole life, and though he loves the state, he says he's always been disappointed by the fact that there are so few kosher offerings here. He'd spent his working life in clothing management, but three years ago, when he learned that Calypso's owners wanted out of the restaurant business, he approached them.
"I asked myself, 'What if I were to open an Israeli restaurant?'" Nachmias recalls. "I'd like to find a place where I could get good falafel. I'm sure other people would, too. Now we have the best falafel in town."
Authenticity is important to Nachmias, because since coming to America, he says, he's eaten too much food that tries to pass itself off as authentically Middle Eastern but really isn't.
"Not that long ago, I went to a Moroccan restaurant in Milwaukee and I ordered the hummus," Nachmias says. "They brought it out to me and it wasn't right at all. There was no lemon. It was bland. It tasted funny. I called the owner over and said, 'What kind of hummus is this?' and the guy said, 'This is the kind we serve to the Americans. If you want the real kind, you have to ask for it.' I don't want my restaurant to be like that. I want to serve only the real kind of food."
Unlike Fishman's Kosher, Little Tel-Aviv serves only fish and vegetarian food. The menu is large, with breakfast, lunch, and dinner selections. There are many Israeli classics, including hummus sandwiches, falafel, and mirit (a grilled sandwich with whipped butter, Israeli cheese, and tomatoes).
A house favorite, Nachmias insists, is the Israeli-style walleye. "I love that it combines my old home and my new home," he says. "Sometimes customers will ask me, 'So they have walleye in Israel?' I say, 'No, it's Israeli style.' But I love walleye. I think it's a wonderful fish."
While some might see the small size of the Twin Cities' kosher community as a handicap, Nachmias sees it as an opportunity to build a loyal customer base. "I keep kosher, and I understand how important it is for the community to have kosher restaurants," Nachmias says. "There are so many reasons. If you want to celebrate an anniversary, a birthday, cater a wedding, you want to celebrate in a nice place. We're giving people that nice place to celebrate in."
Nachmias also believes that corporate Minnesota needed more kosher restaurants for business meetings and events. "Minnesota has so many businesses," he says. "Nationally, there are many businesspeople who keep kosher, people who work at Best Buy, Target, you name it. A few years ago they had nowhere to go and hold a business meeting. Now they can come here and eat anything on the menu."
Little Tel-Aviv is open Sunday through Friday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Nachmias works in the restaurant every day, and his oldest daughter (he has seven children) works there, too. Right now, business is so good that Nachmias is considering opening a second restaurant.
Still, he knows that he'll have to weigh his business decisions carefully. He points out that L'chaim, St. Paul's last remaining kosher grocery, closed just this month.
"There are already two kosher restaurants in Minneapolis," he says. "There are only so many Jews here. In New York you have millions of Jews, so it is not hard to open another restaurant. So you have to think twice if you want to open a kosher restaurant. You have to create a place that appeals to everybody, not just the kosher community. If another kosher restaurant opens, I could close. But I guess I'm a gambling man. I think there's room enough here for everybody."
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