Friday, March 9, 2007

Milk and Honey and the JCC

Thankfully, and due to some very hard work on behalf of numerous individuals, we - inside the Orthodox community -- enjoy a very productive and beneficial relationship with the broader Jewish community. This has allowed us to partner in a number of different important communal areas of concern, from Jewish education, to support for Israel, to communal needs. It is in that spirit that I'm writing about a recent development in the hope that we can again positively communicate with the members of the larger community, and solve a looming communal problem.

As we all know, the JCC in West Bloomfield houses the Milk and Honey Restaurant, the only upscale kosher dining establishment in Southeastern Michigan. Milk and Honey, run by Matt Prentice, is cholov yisroel with a mashgiach temidi, and in a recent review by an outside expert, received an excellent review for its kashrus -- a source of great pride for Mr. Prentice. It is an important resource for members of the observant community who need a venue for business meetings, celebrations, or just a nice night out.

As you might guess, Milk and Honey alone would at best struggle for financial viability. Without Friday nights and Saturdays, let alone holidays, a restaurant cannot cover its own expenses. Yet, in an agreement with the JCC, Matt opened Milk and Honey five years ago and also became the exclusive kosher caterer at the JCC and Handleman Hall. He agreed to pay minimum rents assuming that with the beauty of the room and his catering expertise, he would easily be able to cover those minimums and the expense of the restaurant. Unfortunately, the events never materialized at the JCC. The income never came, and Matt was forced to pay out of his own pocket to cover the minimum rent agreements.

When his contract came up for renewal, Matt could no longer guarantee the JCC a minimum income for Handelman Hall. The business just wasn't sufficient to make that kind of commitment. But, the JCC needed that revenue in order to cover their budget. So, the JCC decided that any private party need not be kosher at the JCC. At the same time, it reaffirmed that any JCC event would still be strictly kosher. With this new policy in place, in negotiations with Matt Prentice, the JCC insisted that in order to renew his contract, he would relinquish his exclusivity and Handleman Hall, meaning that any caterer, kosher or not, could now service the JCC.

Although Matt initially agreed to these stipulations, he now feels that allowing other caterers to offer non-kosher catering in Handleman Hall puts him at an unfair disadvantage. If others can bring in treif food, they why can't he? In fact, the JCC would have no problem with Matt catering treif parties at the JCC. But it does present major kashrus issues:

  1. First and foremost, experience tells us that to allow a caterer to have kosher and non-kosher service at the same venue is a recipe for disaster. Parties are the most difficult events to monitor and plan for -- there are too many people, factors and possibilities that can come up, and must be dealt with quickly. Having non-kosher parties in the same location as the kosher parties would create a situation where mistakes would happen, no matter how iron-clad the previously put in place precautions.
  2. If Matt Prentice were to cater both kosher and non-kosher affairs at the JCC, that would create a sense of confusion for patrons. How would anyone really know whether the affair was kosher or treif? Would they have to ask? Would it have to be on the invitation? Who would agree to advertise: "this Bar Mitzvah is a non-kosher event"?
For this reason, if Matt Prentice began catering treif affairs at the JCC, he would no longer be able to cater kosher affairs as well. And if he couldn't have the kosher catering business there, it would not make sense business-wise for him to keep Milk and Honey kosher either.

So we seem to have a conundrum:
  • The kosher-eating community needs and wants Milk and Honey to continue to operate, and...
  • The JCC needs more revenue from Handelman Hall and feels that the only way to increase revenue is by offering treif parties, but...
  • The Vaad cannot allow a caterer -- even with a great track record -- to offer kosher and non-kosher catering at the same location, and...
  • Matt needs to cover his costs and cannot compete with other non-kosher caterers at the JCC.

That's where we come in:

We would like to encourage you to communicate with the JCC about this issue. Please note that we don't think that we should immediately begin to complain: there are valid concerns from each party. At the same time, with good communication, perhaps we can prevail upon the JCC to reconsider its decision to allow non-kosher parties at the JCC.
  • First and foremost, have they done any serious studies to assess whether allowing treif will significantly increase revenues? It's one thing to say empirically that we know people who would take the room, but does that really bear out to be true? Currently, Matt is able to cater kosher parties on Shabbos, although Shabbos clearly does place restrictions on what he can and cannot offer. Why aren't people hiring Matt Prentice to do their parties now, and how would allowing non-kosher food change that?
  • Secondly, assuming that the decision to allow treif catering in the JCC would result in the loss of Milk and Honey as a kosher restaurant, is that a trade that the JCC would be willing to make for the expected income? The Board of Directors, when it made this decision, was not aware of these ramifications. Now, perhaps they could reconsider this decision in light of these new facts. The Jewish community puts a great deal of additional revenue into the JCC to preserve its viability: while the cost of keeping kosher might be great, the community needs to decide whether that's a cost that it's willing to bear. That's a decision that should not be placed solely on the back of the JCC, but on the community at large.
It's important to communicate to the leadership of the JCC and to our friends in the community, in a positive manner, the value that the Orthodox and kosher community places in Milk and Honey. It brings people into the building, and creates important opportunities for interaction between different facets of the community. It creates a wonderful space for interaction, and its a great restaurant.

We will all need to work together to solve this issue and come to a resolution that's viable for everyone involved. We know that with the right attitude, that's something that we've accomplished before, and can again achieve with this issue as well.

Rabbi Yechiel Morris, Young Israel of Southfield
Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Young Israel of Oak Park