After dishing up shawarma and hummus to Pittsburgh’s kosher community for almost four years, Pinati Mediterranean Grill served its last meal on March 26, and then shut its doors for good.
The restaurant, which specialized in Middle Eastern cuisine, was located on the corner of Murray Avenue and Hobart Street in the heart of Squirrel Hill. Despite being the only kosher restaurant in town with a wait staff and table service, Pinati is now out of business.
Owner Shimon Ohayon, who before opening his restaurant ran a children’s clothing store Downtown, could not be reached for comment.
The closing of Pinati is not unique in these troubling economic times.
“People are cutting back on eating out,” said Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of the Kosher Division of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues, “and it’s a question of numbers: can the community support the restaurant and keep it busy?”
“There are a lot of factors,” said Elefant. “My hunch is that it probably has a lot to do with the economy. Non-kosher restaurants are closing, too.
“You need the community to get around you,” in order to run a successful kosher restaurant, he added. “And that is easier said than done.”
Elefant said that in Manhattan, it is much easier to sustain a kosher restaurant because “most individuals eating in kosher restaurants are not Jewish.” If there is a business meeting with five or six colleagues, one of whom keeps kosher, all will eat in the kosher restaurant — providing the food and atmosphere are good — in order to accommodate their kosher associate.
“So, there is the question of how many observant people do you have in a city, and how much influence do they have on their colleagues?” Elefant said.
In addition to Sweet Tammy’s, a kosher bakery/coffeehouse, Pittsburgh is now left with two remaining kosher restaurants: Milky Way, which serves pizza and other vegetarian dishes, and Aaron and Ari’s Grill, a meat restaurant specializing in Chinese food and deli sandwiches.
“We’re doing very well,” said Elan Sokol, manager of Aaron and Ari’s Grill. “We’re nervous because of the economy, but we have very loyal customers. We feel confident we’ll be able to make it through.”
Sokol estimated that about 30 percent of Aaron and Ari’s customers are non-Jews, and Jews who do not keep kosher.
Aaron and Ari’s has not raised its menu prices, despite being faced with higher prices by suppliers, in an effort to keep the restaurant affordable for the community, Sokol said. Sokol said the key to running a successful kosher restaurant is “finding the right formula.”
Pittsburgh has seen many other kosher restaurants come and go, including Sushelli, which specialized in sushi, and Café M, an upscale dairy restaurant. Ari Gutman and Aaron Siebzener, the owners of Aaron and Ari’s, owned both of those short-lived eateries.
“Some of the restaurants that closed down, the issue was the wait staff,” said Sokol. “With fast food, you know what you’re getting. With wait staff, you can be looking at an appetizer, tipping. It can be more than what people can afford in a tough economy.”
“But there seems to be a need for a fast food meat establishment,” Sokol said. “I hope we’re able to stick around for 30 years or so.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)