The Mrs. and I picked up dinner at Burger.Org, a local kosher burger restaurant around the corner from our house. There is a relatively large and active observant Jewish population in the neighborhood. One would think in a four-and-a-half square mile area boasting five synagogues, opening a kosher restaurant would be the equivalent of owning a gold mine. One would think.
In the nearly thirty years I've lived in Elkins Park, I've seen kosher restaurants come and go. However, the bitching I've heard regarding the lack of kosher restaurants maintains a constant level - and that level is "high." The members of the Jewish community in Elkins Park are a bunch of judgmental finger-pointers who look down their noses at anyone who is not part of their little individual circles — and with five synagogues, that's five circles. They whine and complain about not having a kosher restaurant nearby, and then, when one opens, they don't support it. And worse, when it closes, they whine all over again.
The poor success rate of kosher restaurants cannot be blamed solely on the lack of support from the neighborhood. Most of these establishments are opened and operated by people with no business sense or restaurant experience. They are usually poorly run, poorly staffed, poorly stocked and overpriced — in all, a deadly combination.
Burger.Org has four locations in the area, with their busiest one handling lunchtime crowds in Center City Philadelphia, nestled among a thick density of office buildings. I've been to the Elkins Park outlet many times and I have never seen another customer. There were several staff members milling about and the ubiquitous mashgiach (an on-premises rabbi tasked with supervising kosher compliance) was there, but the set tables were empty. It's sort of baffling, because the food is pretty good. My wife (an unwavering carnivore) has enjoyed burgers and and fries and I (a vegetarian) have enjoyed their meatless alternative. (If you put enough lettuce, onions, guacamole, jalapenos and salsa on anything, it'll be pretty good.) However, every time we go there, we expect the place to be closed, as in "closed forever".
So, once again, we parked in the empty lot and approached the empty restaurant. We were greeted by a young man who smiled and waved as he took an order on the phone. He wore an apron and had a yarmulke bobby-pinned to the back of his thick mop of hair. With the phone wedged under his chin, he scribbled frantically on a small pad and repeated a barrage of "Uh-huh"s in the the receiver.
"Hang on, " he said into the phone, then directed his attention to the wizened old man behind the counter, "I'll ask."
The old man behind the counter looked like a character from Fiddler on the Roof: long, wiry, white beard, black vest over a wrinkled white shirt, collar buttoned at the neck, a large black hat perched on his head. His wisdom-filled eyes were slightly obscured by world-weary lids. He turned to the young man, readying himself for an inquiry that would require the deep consideration that only a learned man of his life experiences could deliver upon. He leaned forward and offered a nod of permission to present tonight's question of the ages.
"Rabbi," the young man began solemnly, "does the green salad have tomatoes?"
The old man wrinkled his forehead and thoughtfully stroked his beard. "If they want tomatoes, they can have them. They don't have to have them."
Oh, I guarantee this place won't be open too much longer.