When asked why they opened a kosher cafe in Cincinnati in 2022, Yair and Lainey Richler both seemed to be in agreement: “It was a no-brainer,” Lainey said.
Yair grew up in Israel, the son of Orthodox cafe owners. Lainey grew up here in Cincinnati, as a Conservative Jew. Both consider themselves observant.
The couple are now the owners of Cafe Alma, a brunch spot in Pleasant Ridge that’s generated a lot of buzz – and not just in the Jewish community.
But it turns out that opening a cafe, and being profitable while also maintaining kosher certification, was a bigger challenge than they anticipated. The Richlers knew they would need to appeal not just to Jews but to the larger Cincinnati community in order to bring in enough patrons. And for the Richlers, that has meant staying open on Shabbat and holidays.
Yair and Lainey met after Lainey traveled to Israel, lived on a kibbutz, served in the IDF, and “did the whole new immigrant thing,” she said. There had been plans possibly to open a branch of Yair’s parents’ cafe in Tel Aviv, where the couple was living. There were definitely some plans to travel the world.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
The Richlers decided, instead, to travel to Cincinnati, where they could be close to Lainey’s family and where they could start their own family. As the Richlers spoke with Cincy Jewfolk, a young infant slept peacefully in a carrier.
Once the couple settled in, Lainey said, they decided to open a restaurant. But it hasn’t been without its challenges.
Cafe Alma is open on Shabbat and holidays, as the majority of their clientele is not Jewish. The Richlers weren’t just looking to open a kosher restaurant: they wanted a restaurant the whole community could enjoy, Jewish and non-Jewish.
“We are advocates for diversity,” Yair said.
To the Richlers, that means, in part, Jewish diversity. They were “trying to make it an inclusive environment for all walks of Jews in Cincinnati,” Lainey said. But they were also looking for all kinds of diversity.
“How fun would it be to come to a place where you have these hipsters with a million different piercings and black hats and someone with a sheitel right next to them?” Lainey said. Their goal was to open a “really cool, hip place that also bridges the outside community to the Jewish community,” she said.
The majority of their clientele don’t even know the restaurant is kosher, the Richlers said. “It’s truly, I think, a testament to the fact that our food is actually good,” Yair said.
The Richlers didn’t necessarily want to be open on Shabbat and holidays. “It’s a hassle for us,” Lainey said. But the Richlers also believed it would have been impossible for their business to survive depending totally on the Cincinnati Jewish market. “We’re very much marketing ourselves as a brunch spot,” Lainey said, and she didn’t see any way forward for a brunch spot that was closed on Saturdays.
The stumbling block was getting kosher certification.
“In the end, it ultimately falls on…us being Jewish owners and having our business open on Shabbat and chagim (holidays),” Yair said. The couple themselves are not present at these times, nor do they have any Jewish staff working on Shabbat and holidays, but it was still an obstacle to local certification.
For the local Kosher certifying agency, Cincinnati Kosher, it was a red line, the Richlers said. It goes against their policy to certify a restaurant that will be open on Shabbat.
For Yair, their terms seemed a little extreme. At his parents’ cafe, “my father turns on the ovens and receives all the deliveries. A mashgiach [kosher supervisor] comes by once a week to check on the business and sift their flour, but that’s all. But, I understand, the process is different in Israel,” Yair said.
For a while, the Richlers considered opening without the certification, said Lainey, but in the end, they couldn’t open a restaurant the Jewish community couldn’t eat at. For months, they tried to make it work, but eventually realized they’d need to find another route to certification.
That’s when they found the International Kosher Council (IKC).
The IKC operates out of New York City but also certifies businesses in markets such as Philadelphia, Italy and now, Cincinnati.
Rabbi Zev Schwartz, who oversees the IKC, explains that “Cincinnati is a rarity,” in that he often doesn’t work in markets where there is an active vaad (kosher-certifying council) but that he found the local council very easy to work with. They had no problem with his supervising Cafe Alma instead of them.
“It’s a niche that they weren’t filling, that I was able to fill,” Schwartz said, referring to certifying a restaurant that is open on Shabbat.
The Richlers feel confident in the process. They run everything by Schwartz. When they opened, “Yair spent days taking pictures of every single ingredient” to send to Schwartz, Lainey said.
Cafe Alma employees are given meals from the cafe and know that absolutely no outside food is to be brought in. The business is officially sold to a non-Jew on Shabbat and holidays to fulfill the requirements of Jewish law. Schwartz speaks highly of the local mashgiach with whom he has been working, as do the Richlers.
Yes, admits Yair, there’s the “issue of trust,” but he feels that this isn’t any different than any other kosher institution around the world. “If I were looking to cheat the system, there’s a zillion and one ways to cheat the kosher system…So it has to be [based on mutual] trust,” Yair said.
Still, there are Jews who will not eat at Cafe Alma because they are not certified by the Cincinnati vaad, which is a disappointment to the Richlers. They were looking to open a restaurant that would serve all Cincinnati Jews.
“Everything about [the process of their certification] seems so backwards,” Lainey said. She sees kosher certification as an opportunity to open things up for Jews. “The whole point was really to ensure that the Jewish community can grow and flourish and have opportunities [like] the rest of the population does. It’s a shame that a Jewish institution can’t serve the broader Jewish population.”
Schwartz wants to assure people that there is no difference between his certification and what many kosher certifying agencies do.
“There is nothing to be concerned about,” he said. “It’s the same as with any other agency.”
The Orthodox Union relies on mashgiachs that they oversee from centralized locations, Schwartz said. “Bigger agencies have even more moving parts,” he said. From that perspective, what Schwartz does is more straightforward. He works with trusted, local mashgiachs. He checks all ingredients being used. He does Zoom and WhatsApp calls to walk through restaurants. He just doesn’t necessarily set foot on site.
The only problem, Schwartz said, “with doing the long distance is that I don’t get a chance to taste [the food.]”
For the Richlers, the food is really the whole point. When you operate a kosher restaurant, they note, you have a sort of captive audience that is more likely to eat at your establishment simply because they need kosher food. It can be easy to only focus on serving that captive audience. But the Richlers are more intent on providing kosher food that attracts people from all walks of life and building a wide-ranging community around that.
There may have been, and continue to be, challenges with opening a kosher restaurant in Cincinnati, especially one that was going to succeed with the non-Jewish community. But the Richlers feel confident that their restaurant is the best of both worlds.
And despite all their struggles, they are happy with how things are going.