Food service is perhaps the most formidable facet of kosher certification today. While manufacturing facilities may seem so complex, with gigantic machinery, high tech production lines and thousands upon thousands of products made daily, industrial manufacturing is actually a highly regulated industry with extremely specific formulas and very few substitutions. Restaurants and caterers, on the other hand, work in close quarters, with many employees, a constantly changing menu, and significant staffing turnaround. Food service facilities also receive fresh ingredients daily, as opposed to industrial manufacturers who generally receive bulk deliveries on a set schedule. These factors combine to make a highly complex situation with many potential kashrus challenges.
I sat down with OK Kosher’s Food Service Rabbinic Coordinators, Rabbi Kalman Weinfeld, who is also a member of the OK Executive Vaad HaKashrus, and his colleague, Rabbi Yakov Teichman, who is responsible for the operations of the Food Service Department, to hear firsthand how they manage close to 100 Food Service facilities under their purview. Between the two of them, they have close to 40 years of experience in commercial food service kashrus.
DF: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CERTIFYING MEAT, DAIRY AND PAREVE RESTAURANTS?
Rabbi Weinfeld: The basic requirements for all restaurants are the same. There must be a mashgiach temidi in the restaurant at all times and all restaurants have to follow OK Food Service standards (see sidebar).
Rabbi Teichman: For meat restaurants we require a dedicated mashgiach temidi during all hours of operation. He is the only person that controls access to the restaurant.
Rabbi Weinfeld: Even in dairy and pareve restaurants, there is a dedicated mashgiach temidi during some of the hours of operation. A frum owner or manager cannot possibly dedicate all of the required time as a mashgiach.
Some people wonder why we need a mashgiach temidi in a pareve/vegan restaurant at all, and there are quite a few reasons. The first reason is for Bishul Yisroel. If a non-Jew cooks items that needs to be Bishul Yisroel, not only is the food non-kosher, the keilim become non-kosher and need to be kashered! Plus, vegetables need to be checked and all incoming ingredients need to be verified to be kosher.
DF: DO YOU GIVE A HECHSHER TO EVERYONE THAT APPLIES FOR CERTIFICATION?
Rabbi Teichman: When a restaurant owner applies for certification, we speak with him or her over the phone and meet in person. It’s important to get a feel for the person and make sure they are someone we can trust and who respects kashrus and rabbonim. If we are not comfortable with the owner, we will decline to certify the company.
DF: IS IT TRUE THAT IF YOU CAN TRUST SOMEONE ENOUGH TO EAT IN THEIR HOUSE, YOU CAN EAT IN THEIR RESTAURANT WITHOUT A HECHSHER?
Rabbi Weinfeld: No; and there are a several reasons why. The owner does not do most (or, in some cases, any) of the food preparation in his restaurant. He’s also not always there to check vegetables or incoming deliveries and is juggling so many different responsibilities within the business. Perhaps the biggest issue is that money is involved. It is so hard to push away the yetzer hara and face a big financial loss when food needs to be thrown away.
Rabbi Teichman: The issue of money is a serious halachic issue. There is a famous takanah issued by the Vaad Arba Aratzos, which was made up of leading rabbonim in Poland and Lithuania. Members included the She’eiris Yosef, Mas’as Binyamin, Maharsha, Bach, Kli Yakar, Levush, Tevu’os Shor, Sema, Maharam miLublin, and others. In 1595, the Vaad issued a takanah that food or wine could not be purchased from anyone (even those who were known to be frum) without a certificate from a Rav stating that it was kosher. This takanah did not allow for any exceptions.
DF: WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF ENSURING KASHRUS IN A RESTAURANT?
Rabbi Weinfeld: Having a good, reliable mashgiach is definitely at the top of the list and having clear, written instructions.
Rabbi Teichman: There are usually two pressure points in food service – incorrect deliveries and vegetables that were accidentally used before they were inspected for insects. Most people are not malicious and have no intention of wrongdoing. When there is such an individual, it is nearly impossible to control, but we are usually dealing with honest people who have the potential to make mistakes.
DF: SO, WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU ENCOUNTER A MALICIOUS PERSON WHO INTENDS TO BREAK THE KOSHER PROTOCOL?
Rabbi Teichman: When we come across the possibility of a deliberate breach of protocol, a thorough investigation begins immediately. The restaurant may be temporarily closed while we investigate to protect the consumer. If an employee is found to be deliberately breaking kosher protocol, the owner is required to fire that person. If it is a partner, we will ask the partner to be removed completely from the business. Other times, we need to withdraw our kosher certification completely.
DF: HOW DO OK CERTIFIED RESTAURANTS KNOW WHAT THEY CAN AND CAN’T USE?
Rabbi Teichman: There is a list of approved products given to each restaurant and for anything that is not on the list, they can check with us for approval.
Rabbi Weinfeld: When a mashgiach or owner has a question about using a product, they can reach Rabbi Teichman or me 24/6. We always answer their calls and ask them to send the proper documentation so we can give a written answer as soon as possible.
DF: HOW DO YOU FIND, VET AND TRAIN MASHGICHIM?
Rabbi Weinfeld: We always keep an eye out for good mashgichim, and people apply like they would for any other job. Rabbi Teichman or I interview candidates (sometimes together) and, in addition to determining whether they would be a good mashgiach and a reliable employee, we ask about their food service experience and other work experience.
Rabbi Teichman: We also require a letter from a shul rabbi attesting to the fact that the potential mashgiach is a frum, shomer Shabbos person.
Rabbi Weinfeld: Once we hire a mashgiach, we train him in our office for vegetable checking, have him take and pass an online mashgiach training course, and Rabbi Teichman or I (or Rabbi Kesselman in California) train him in-person at the facility where he will work.
The mashgiach is not there to pasken or make kashrus decisions. His role is to ensure that everything in the kitchen is done according to the customized kosher protocol and system set up by the Food Service department for this facility. A mashgiach always has the support of the Rabbinic Coordinators.
DF: WHAT ARE THE MAIN RESPONSIBILITIES OF A MASHGIACH?
Rabbi Teichman: He has a lot of responsibilities. In no particular order: controlling access by having sole possession of the keys, turning on fires, checking incoming deliveries, sealing outgoing deliveries, washing vegetables. He also has to understand the nuances of the particular restaurant or caterer – how the kitchen operates, any specialized food preparation needs, how to place supplier orders, etc.
Rabbi Weinfeld: His main responsibility is an intangible one. A mashgiach has to have both eyes open and be alert to his surroundings at all times. He also does hafrashas challah when needed.
DF: HOW DO YOU KNOW A MASHGIACH IS AT HIS RESTAURANT?
Rabbi Teichman: Each mashgiach checks in and out every day by using a GPS location system via a secure, monitored, electronic method.
DF: WHAT KIND OF SUPPORT DO MASHGICHIM GET FROM OK HEADQUARTERS?
Rabbi Weinfeld: We are in touch with our mashgichim daily. Rabbi Teichman and I are in continuous contact with our mashgichim and restaurant owners in the New York area, and Rabbi Sholom Kesselman, who lives in Los Angeles, is responsible for all of the OK-certified food service facilities in California. When they have questions, we answer immediately and with as much explanation as necessary. If a mashgiach needs additional training, we meet with him and review. If a mashgiach is facing pressure from restaurant owners, chefs or staff, we are there to back them and solve the issues.
Rabbi Teichman: In addition to daily phone communication, Rabbi Weinfeld and I visit each restaurant and catering facility multiple times per week and make sure our mashgichim never feel alone in their responsibilities.
DF: DOES THE OK RELY ON CAMERAS?
Rabbi Weinfeld: While we don’t rely on the cameras, they are an important back up that can be used to provide concrete proof that something occurred. The mashgiach is always our first line of defense.
Rabbi Teichman: No, but the contract between the restaurant and the OK requires that we have access so that we can look back if there is an issue. What if someone brings in outside food to a restaurant? With camera access we can see how they came in (were they also customers or just looking for a place to sit and eat) and what the food came in contact with so that we could kasher or dispose of affected equipment. In addition, missing footage will alert us to the possibility of wrongdoing and spark deeper investigation.
DF: WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN FOOD SERVICE CERTIFICATION?
Rabbi Weinfeld: New restaurant staff. The restaurants and caterers are constantly getting new staff members and they all need to be trained about kosher rules.
Rabbi Teichman: The availability and cost of supplies make it very challenging for the restaurants and they often need to get new suppliers approved. There are even times that a facility staff member has to go to a retail store to purchase an ingredient in an emergency, and the mashgiach needs to make sure to check every incoming product.
DF: WHAT’S ONE THING YOU COULD PERSONALLY DO THAT WOULD IMPROVE YOUR ABILITY TO DO YOUR JOB?
Rabbi Weinfeld: I would learn a few more languages – especially Spanish!
DF: WHAT ARE SOME NEW ENHANCEMENTS TO THE OK FOOD SERVICE KASHRUS STANDARDS?
Rabbi Weinfeld: In the past, chicken, meat and fish were verified by the mashgiach when the deliveries arrived. Now, in addition, every time chicken, meat or fish is removed from the packaging and cut up or prepped it is checked by the mashgiach and stored on a tray that the mashgiach sealed with OK kosher tape and signed by the mashgiach.
Rabbi Teichman: We also continue to require that all incoming purchases are inspected by the mashgiach, with the added requirement that each invoice or receipt needs to be signed by the mashgiach. These receipts and invoices are reviewed regularly by Rabbi Weinfeld and me. We are also making more frequent inspections and adding additional mashgichim when necessary.
DF: WOW. THERE IS SO MUCH HERE THAT I DIDN’T KNOW BEFORE, EVEN AS SOMEONE WHO WORKS WITH YOU BOTH ON A REGULAR BASIS. I’LL TELL YOU ONE THING – I HAVE MORE APPRECIATION FOR THE MASHGIACH! HE HAS A HUGE RESPONSIBILITY ON HIS SHOULDERS AND TRULY NEEDS SIYATA D’SHMAYA!
OK Kosher Standards for Food Service Establishments and Hotels
– All ingredients and equipment used in the establishment need to be preapproved by OK Kosher.
– An approved mashgiach is on-site during all food preparation and serving times.
– All mashgichim take a standardized online mashgiach training course before beginning work.
– All mashgichim send their location via a secure electronic method upon arriving and leaving the restaurant or catering facility.
– All incoming products and ingredients are inspected by the mashgiach at the entrance before they are brought into the facility and invoices are signed by the mashgiach.
– All cooking fires (including, but not limited to, ovens, stovetops, deep fryers, induction cookers) are lit by the approved mashgiach.
– All refrigerators, freezers, and cooking appliances are locked and/or sealed by the approved mashgiach at the end of each day. The keys are only held by the approved mashgiach.
– All cooking fires (including, but not limited to, ovens, stovetops, deep fryers, induction cookers) are lit by the approved mashgiach.
– Any raw meat, poultry or fish (without skin) that is repackaged and placed in the refrigerator or freezer is wrapped, sealed with OK kosher tape, and signed with the date by the mashgiach.
– The supervised facility is closed on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays unless special arrangements are made.
– All prepared food that is sent out of the establishment is sealed by the mashgiach with OK Kosher tape.
– Meat establishments – all meat/poultry products are Glatt Kosher and Chassidishe shechita.
– Dairy establishments – all dairy products are Chalav Yisrael.
– Fish are received with the skin on or have an approved kosher certification.
– All entertainment is pre-approved by OK Kosher.
– All baked goods are Pas Yisrael.
– Cameras are installed in all certified restaurants and catering facilities.
A word from Rabbi Nosson Dubin, Founder and Dean of the Kosher Institute of America
The OK was one of the very early adopters of the AKO Mashgiach Course offered by Kosher Institute of America. Before offering the course to their Mashgichim, Rabbi Chaim Fogelman and Rabbi Yakov Teichman diligently reviewed every single module with a fine-toothed comb and we subsequently customized the course according to their specifications. Their dedication towards their Mashgichim, as well as ensuring they are properly trained, has been truly inspiring. Approximately 150 Mashgichim have taken the course to date.
AKO (Association of Kashrus Organizations) recently had a conference in Manhattan and I stopped into OK-certified Bravo Kosher Pizza for dinner on the way to the airport. The Mashgiach recognized me from the course and excitedly mentioned how transformative the course has been for him, as well as for other OK Mashgichim.
It has been a sincere pleasure and honor to work with the esteemed Rabbonim of the OK to develop the OK edition of the AKO Mashgiach Course.