S.I. Jews Running On Dunkin’


For the Jews of “the forgotten borough,” life just got a little sweeter.

Less than a year ago, a new, $40 million Jewish community center opened in Staten Island in the heart of its Orthodox Jewish community. This followed census data showing a 27 percent increase in the Jewish population of the island from 1991 to 2002, much of it fueled by Russians moving from Brooklyn.

Now, in an island short on kosher options, Jewish Staten Islanders are on a sugar high, clearing the powdery shelves at the new strictly kosher Dunkin’ Donuts, the first of its kind on the island. Turns out Jewish Islanders can’t get enough powdered munchkins, blueberry muffins and egg-and- cheese sandwiches. And of course, Dunkin’s coffee.

“The community is thrilled,” said Ruth Lasser, director of communications at the Joan & Alan Bernikow JCC, located just down the road from the kosher Dunkin’ Donuts. “It was a wise business decision to cater to the Orthodox community located right in its backyard. It’s situated perfectly and is a wonderful asset to a community that needs it.”

The vegetarian store is under the supervision of Rabbi Aaron Mehlman. Ham, sausages and bacon — all treif ingredients commonly used in Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast sandwiches — are no longer on the menu. Pork is also out, as are some non-kosher smoothie recipes, eight types of omelets and even Gatorade. And Dunkin’ Donuts staff and customers have been instructed not to bring outside food or drinks into the store.

Although the limited menu could alienate bacon-loving, longtime customers and result in fewer sales, the store saw an increase in revenues of about 5 percent in the past week alone, said Jay Dreicer, vice president of operations at Dunkin’ Donuts. Customer counts have also increased, especially over the weekend. Last Sunday alone, the store grossed $500 more than on a typical Sunday.

News spread quickly as Orthodox Islanders rushed to be the first to get their fix of chocolate glazed or jelly doughnuts. Yet the story of how Staten Island got a kosher Dunkin Donuts — when the much-larger Jewish community of Queens doesn’t have one — is lesser known.

Kosher doughnut fans can thank (or blame) Leo Tallo for the new obsession that’s wreaking havoc on their diets. Tallo, a developer who is also part owner of more than 40 individual Dunkin’ Donuts franchises, pushed the idea. “My Jewish friends were telling me that the neighborhood really needs a kosher Dunkin’ Donuts,” he said. “They wanted something different to eat.”

With 1,200 Orthodox families living in walking distance of the store and a new JCC just blocks away, the location was ideal for a kosher Dunkin’ Donuts. The timing also worked out well, Dreicer said. “We planned it for after the High Holy Days, since people were busy.”

“We’ve been trying to make it kosher for about eight months, but there were some politics,” said Dreicer. “We called Rabbi [Yaakov] Lehrfield of the Young Israel of Staten Island, who was very helpful. He connected us with Rabbi Mehlman, who expedited the process and it finally happened.”

In the past week alone, the kosher store was up $1,000, said Dreicer.

Dunkin’ Donuts staff is still getting used to the influx of customers. Last Motzei Shabbos, disappointed customers, many of them yarmulke-clad and still dressed in their Shabbat best, eyed the empty doughnut trays. “When I came in at 2 p.m., I thought we’d have way too many doughnuts,” said one of the Dunkin’ Donuts employees. “Yet all these people showed up and now we’re out of almost everything.”

That’s a good thing, said store manager Anoja Pannilade. “We’re happy because it’s been so busy,” she said, adding that the store will study customer traffic data and rev up production — including making more doughnuts — to keep up with increased demand.

Not As Simple As Removing Ham

Making an individual Dunkin’ Donuts franchise kosher is not a simple process. Franchises that want to become kosher must apply to corporate headquarters for an exception from selling non-kosher products, confirmed Andrew Mastrangelo, a Dunkin’ Donuts spokesman. They must also demonstrate a community preference for kosher, and provide proof that they will receive and maintain kosher certification. “It’s usually approved on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Of the 1,440 Dunkin’ Donuts franchises in New York and New Jersey, only 27 of them are kosher, according to the Massachusetts-based company. That’s in part because corporate Dunkin’ Donuts is not thrilled about franchises becoming kosher, Dreicer admitted. “Traditionally, when you take away sausage, bacon, ham and the smoothie program, you typically lose sales,” he said. “They told us, ‘Don’t expect that the new products we come out with will be kosher.’ And we don’t.”

Franchisees typically pay corporate headquarters an upfront fee per store. They also contribute a monthly percentage of sales to cover corporate advertising costs, as well as a monthly royalty fee, also based upon sales. Therefore, corporate headquarters want to be sure that individual franchises are profitable.

In addition, being kosher brings down the average amount of money each customer spends, since the more expensive ham and deli sandwiches have been eliminated, Rabbi Mehlman said. “How much can you spend on doughnuts and bagels?” he quipped. “You have to make it up in volume.”

But owners are confident that going kosher was not only the right thing to do, but also a good business move — and well worth the estimated $3,000 yearly certification costs per location.

People are overjoyed and appreciative, he said. “So far it looks like the community will support us.”

What Makes It Kosher?

The changeover to kosher was not nearly as difficult as owners had feared. On Friday, Oct. 19, all non-kosher items were removed from the store for good. High-powered, commercial-grade microwaves were brought in to replace existing ones, and were kashered. New knives and cutting boards were purchased. “It was painless,” Dreicer said. The owners timed the installation of brand-new equipment for the next few weeks, so that they would automatically be able to be used for cooking kosher.

“It’s all about elimination and substitution — eliminating non-kosher and substituting where you can,” said Rabbi Mehlman, who also oversees a Dunkin’ Donuts production facility elsewhere on the Island and is known for certifying numerous fast food restaurants (his e-mail, incidentally, is makemekosher@gmail.com). Soups and ham, for example, were eliminated. And American cheese was replaced with kosher cheese.

The mixes Dunkin’ Donuts uses are all certified kosher, which makes going kosher simpler. In addition to Rabbi Mehlman’s mashgichim making regular spot checks, Dunkin’ Donuts sends its in-house inspectors to secretly shop franchises. “Dunkin’ Donuts is a very strict operation, which helps in the kashrus area,” Rabbi Mehlman said. “There’s very little wiggle room.”

The company employs a zero-tolerance stance for those who break rules and bring in outside (potentially non-kosher) products to lower costs. “One of the stores I know of had to pay a $10,000 fine for using a [non-Dunkin’ Donuts-approved] toilet bowl cleaner,” Rabbi Mehlman said. “You’d have to be out of your mind to mess with a key product — you’d lose your store.”

Before the new store opened, Islanders craving kosher glazed doughnuts had to travel to either Brooklyn, where there are about 10 kosher Dunkin’ Donuts, or to the store on Elmora Avenue in Elizabeth, N.J., where the second oldest kosher Dunkin’ Donuts on the East Coast is located. That one opened in 1987, but not without a struggle.

Years earlier, the owner of the local Dunkin’ Donuts wanted to go kosher, but the company refused, saying that it didn’t want each ethnic group to start requesting its own menu. Rabbi Elazar M. Teitz, Elizabeth’s leading rabbi, wrote a letter to the corporate headquarters explaining that a kosher Dunkin’ Donuts would cater to Jewish Educational Center’s then 700 students and would not require additional food choices, but rather permission to exclude non-kosher products. “Otherwise, no one will step foot in there,” he wrote. And for some time, no Orthodox Jews did, since the company turned him down.

Meanwhile, two Jews set up a kosher Dunkin’ Donuts store in the Five Towns on Long Island, which was closed on Shabbat. This was against corporate rules, and Dunkin’ Donuts wanted to sue them, Rabbi Teitz said. But when looking over sales receipts, corporate honchos realized that although the store was opened only six days a week, revenues were up 25 percent from when the store had not been kosher.

And so, in 1987, Rabbi Teitz received a letter. Dunkin’ Donuts had changed its mind — going kosher suddenly made good business sense. “The owner told me, ‘My worst kosher day was 15 percent better than my best non-kosher day.’”

The Elizabeth store had a monopoly on kosher doughnuts in the area until the 1990s, when Highland Park opened its own kosher store. Teaneck and a dozen other kosher Dunkin’ Donuts locations followed suit. For Staten Islanders, though, freshly made doughnuts are still a novelty.

Although no additional kosher Dunkin’ Donuts are slated to open in Staten Island, it looks like the one on Manor Road is in it for the long run. “Our goal is to make sure the customer is happy and that we don’t screw anything up,” Dreicer said. “We’re training the staff to be attentive to the Jewish culture and custom, and making sure they say the right thing.”