Thursday, March 3, 2011

Starbucks, the CRC, and the Truth

Back when we were kids, we used to eat ice cream at Howard Johnson's. It was just accepted fact that it was kosher. (Juicy Fruit gum was too. You just had to check the ingredients. For some reason though, Big Red was not. At least that was my mesorah.) We just operated on this set of facts, regardless of whether it was accurate or not. Then, when someone came to the realization that Howard Johnson's was a totally treif restaurant, that was a tough pill to swallow. After all, it's just ice cream! But, as time passed and the new reality set in, HJ fell off the map. We found Carvels, and Baskin Robbins seemed an acceptable alternative. (It was until this post.)
I feel like we're now going through the same process with coffee. Only this time, I'm not sure that people will have such an easy time accepting the truth. Sadly, I'm writing about Starbucks.
Last month, the Chicago Rabbinical Council released this chart, mapping out what one may and may not drink at regular Starbucks restaurants. Tragically, brewed coffee is on the not recommended list. That's right - regular coffee. Why not? It's very simple. Starbucks is a non-kosher restaurant, and they often wash their dishes, utensils and other items together with some of the utensils used to make hot coffee.
(A little inside baseball here. A number of years ago, Starbucks prepared to open a new shop on the corner of Ten Mile Road and Greenfield, literally a quarter-block from the Young Israel of Oak Park, in the heart of the Jewish community. A rumor erupted that the Starbucks would be kosher, and enough people suggested the idea that a Vaad representative went for an initial survey of the premises. He found that many of the cakes sold at Starbucks - at least back then - were specifically made with animal shortening. Yes, lard in the cake at Starbucks, probably because it tastes good. But it's really not kosher.)
Basic kosher rules tell us that heat serves as one of the primary components that transfers taste between utensils, whether kosher or not. So, you have truly treif items and hot coffee all over the store. Mixing the two does not provide a kosher environment. Now, I admit that one could imagine a scenario where the soap nullifies the non-kosher taste, which then makes the coffee not treif, but permissible bedieved. But is that the standard of kashrut most people have come to accept? I think not.
Sadly, it seems pretty clear that coffee at a regular Starbucks that also serves food, is just not recommended. The CRC is not the Badatz of Jerusalem. They're pretty level-headed.
At the same time, I wonder whether even religious and observant people will be open to giving up their beloved Starbucks. It's become so ingrained in the American experience that you can buy a cup of coffee anywhere (even McDonalds!) that many devout Jews seem unable to imagine that the truth might not be true at all.
In all probability, this will just become another distinguishing factor between religious Jews: those that drink coffee out and those that don't. Ironically, keeping kosher (and the various levels thereof) has become one of the dividing demarcations between different groups within Orthodoxy.