TAIPEI (JTA) — When Rebecca Schrage arrived in Hong Kong from her home near Boston to work in finance around 2014, “there were no bagels. The best you could buy was like bread with a hole in it.”
After she began making her own bagels from home and fulfilling orders for local businesses, she quit her job in finance to pursue bagel-making full time in 2014, opening a bagel factory and eventually a brick-and-mortar shop called Schragels.
But she always wanted to open an authentic Jewish deli in Hong Kong, following in the footsteps of her grandparents, who were themselves deli owners in New York. In 2021, she partnered with local restaurateur Mike Watt and investor Jamie Wilson to pursue the idea; she decided to name the restaurant Mendel’s, after her father, Michael Mendel.
Now that dream has turned sour, and a legal battle over Mendel’s has boiled over into a fierce social media uproar, with customers and employees hurling accusations of harassment, mob-like activity and cultural appropriation.
At the heart of the uproar is a dispute between Schrage — a majority shareholder of Joy Lox Club Ltd., the company that owns Mendel’s Delicatessen — and Watt and Wilson. As members of an entity called Jones Crusher Ltd., Watt and Wilson own 40% of the shares in the deli to Schrage’s 60%. They are suing Schrage in Hong Kong district court for alleged damages caused by a breach of contract and misrepresentation.
The battle became public when videos posted by Mendel’s social media account showed men in black clothing blocking entry to the restaurant, implying Schrage sent them to intimidate customers and staff.
“Security has been hired by another party to verbally and physically prevent guests and the Mendel’s team from entering the premise[s], and create crippling disruption such as turning off the main power,” read the posts from the restaurant’s account, to which Shrage says she has no access. Additional posts claim a general manager had been physically grabbed by one of the guards. “At the behest of their employer, security guards take shifts and never leave the premise[s], including overnight.”
Posts on the same account explained that Mendel’s had been “involved in a complex commercial dispute” that is “in the hands of the court to decide. We are going to court to fight for our right to operate this business we created,” an Instagram post read.
The videos outraged Hong Kong’s expat community, members of which took to social media to criticize Schrage for allegedly sending the security guards to Mendel’s.
“Bagels inspired by NY Delis, Intimidation of competitors inspired by Chicago Mobsters #authentic,” one commenter wrote.
“Will I need security to get a bagel?” asked another.
In their suit, Watt and Wilson claim that Schrage failed to pay her portion of agreed costs to open Mendel’s. The three originally settled on a budget of roughly $102,000 ($800,000 in Hong Kong dollars), but “orally agreed” to more than double it to $229,000 when the initial capital “could not entirely cover” costs. As of April, Schrage had only paid $29,500 of her contribution, while Watt and Wilson contributed over $191,000, according to a writ of summons shared with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
But Schrage says she was caught off guard by the increase in budget and that her request for supporting documentation and accounts were denied, adding that documents had been “thrown away.” She said that funds were being diverted into other businesses that she was not part of, and that Watt had proposed that Schrage sell her shares of the business. When she declined, Schrage said, Watt’s team threatened her and her business and changed the locks on the storefront.
Schrage acknowledged sending the security team to Mendel’s — not to block customers, she told JTA, but to prevent further “illegal activity” from happening on the premises. Watt, she said, had been removed from the board of directors and has continued to operate Mendel’s despite not having legal control over the business. “This is why there was a need for security on the premises,” she said, adding that local authorities were conducting a civil and criminal investigation into the case.
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According to Watt, however, Mendel’s was “created, developed and executed” by his team. Schrage had “little to no involvement in the project despite her assertions otherwise,” Watt told JTA.
Watt alleges that the meeting convened to remove him as a director violated the company’s articles of association. Jones Crusher Ltd. has since filed an additional petition to liquidate Joy Lox Club Ltd.
“We have brought this matter to the High Court of Hong Kong and eagerly anticipate the outcome of those proceedings,” Watt told JTA. “Until that time we look forward to being able to operate our business free of the harassment and malicious activity Rebecca has become known for.”
Despite the social media flurry, Hong Kong’s 4,000-member Jewish community appears to have distanced itself from the conflict. Erica Lyons, a Hong Kong resident since 2002 and chair of the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society, said the dispute is “an entirely private matter that doesn’t affect the Jewish community.”
According to Lyons, Jewish communal life in Hong Kong is centered around the major congregations, the Jewish Community Center and the Carmel School, a Jewish day school. Many other organizations are located within the community center, she said.
One Jewish person who has lived in Hong Kong for 10 years, but did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, told JTA he spoke with Schrage before she opened Mendel’s.
“When she first had the idea, she was toying with a few names. At a Shabbat dinner I suggested to Rebbeca that she call it ‘Crazy Rich Jewish Food’ but in the end I’m happy she went with another name, because for me Jewish means kosher and neither Mendel’s nor Schragels is kosher.”
That lack of kosher supervision rankles some community members and points to some of the tensions between Schrage and her erstwhile partners. Some Jewish Hong Kongers are uncomfortable with Mendel’s marketing and menu, which features decidedly nonkosher items like a bagel sandwich with bacon.
“I would not take my child there and say like, ‘Hey, this is your heritage. This restaurant represents your Jewish identity,’” said Elizabeth LaCouture, an assistant professor in gender studies at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the Jewish community. She was particularly put off by one of Mendel’s marketing slogans — “grab life by the matzo balls” — and the word “schmuck” on the menu.
“In a [city] where we have such few representations of Jews outside of our own community, I feel we owe it to put positive representations out there,” she said.
Watt and Wilson are not Jewish and the concept of an authentic Jewish deli “was totally foreign” to them, Schrage maintains.
“I wanted it to be a place where you could come and get a matzo ball soup, to get the deli classics that I grew up with. I wanted it to be kosher in that the ingredients were kosher. To be certified kosher would be quite a challenge,” she said.
“Mendel’s has never claimed to be kosher nor authentically Jewish,” Watt countered. “Our menu and marketing is a reflection of various influences from our multicultural team and backgrounds. In addition to bacon, we also offer jalapeño hotdogs, matcha cookies, beetroot hummus, granola, hash browns, cocktails, and so forth. Primarily we just hope our coffee and food is delicious, and that it provides value to the consumer.”
Schragels and Mendel’s are only two of a number of bagel options in Hong Kong today, though neither eatery is kosher. Both shops are frequented by Jews and non-Jews alike and are located in areas popular among expats.
Hong Kong has seen a number of Jewish-owned and -operated restaurants – kosher and not – come and go from the city’s competitive dining scene over the years. Jimmy’s Kitchen, originally founded by a Jewish family, served up European classics, including non-kosher pork and shellfish dishes. It closed in 2020 after 92 years.
Hong Kong’s first Jewish deli, called Lindy’s East, opened in 1966, branding itself as “the only Kosher restaurant East of the United States.” On the menu? Lobster imported from Maine, alongside the obligatory bagels and pastrami. “Those to whom kosher means strictly kosher would be scandalized by the menu,” a New York Times article from the time noted.
The Jewish community center also has two kosher-supervised restaurants.
Kosher or not, Schrage sees the bagel battle as more than just a legal squabble.
“There was no way I was going to sell my shares and let them use my father’s name. That to me was very personal,” she said.