Around lunchtime, the inside of Aaron and Ari’s Grill on Murray Avenue shows all the requisite elements of a restaurant: tables, chairs, a counter, a drink case. Only one thing is missing: people.
Open from just 5 to 9 p.m. currently, the kosher meat restaurant specializing in Chinese food will shutter its doors two days after Passover ends (it will not be open during Passover). Following the closing of Pinati’s last year, the absence of Aaron and Ari’s means Pittsburgh’s last kosher meat restaurant has bid farewell.
To co-owner Ari Guttman, the closing is no simple matter, but several new opportunities sit on the horizon for kosher food in Pittsburgh.
“I don’t believe this community can afford [a formal kosher meat restaurant] in some areas. Dealing with 100 percent kosher means a lot more expenses,” said Guttman. “So our idea was to do something as cheap as possible for the customer. We use paper, no dishes. It’s food as fast as it can be.”
Even so, after about four years, Guttman and Aaron Siebzener decided to cut their losses without losing the building, which is connected to the duo’s other restaurant, Milky Way, a kosher dairy pizza shop. This spring, they will launch Royal Catering, an upscale kosher catering venture centralized in the former Aaron and Ari’s kitchen.
“We’re going to try competing with the other caterers in town,” said Guttman. “We’ve always been known as a fast food type of place, so people need to see what we can do with upper class food.”
The dining space of Aaron and Ari’s will be converted to a rentable room for birthday and dinner parties and special events, said Guttman.
The decision to restructure the business came when, after speaking to prospective buyers, Guttman found that no one was willing to sign.
“I was very reasonable,” he said. “I’d be the first person to support them if someone wanted to open a meat restaurant.”
Elan Kornblum, president and publisher of Great Kosher Restaurants magazine, said for a kosher meat restaurant to struggle in a “smaller town” isn’t uncommon.
“In towns like Pittsburgh, Detroit and Boston, it seems very difficult for them to sustain kosher restaurants. You don’t have that young crowd with disposable income that comes on Saturday night with five or six people and wants to hang out,” he said. “With big families, you really only go out for special occasions.”
That struggle comes in cycles and “has always been difficult, and will probably continue to be difficult,” said Kornblum of smaller markets.
“Meat restaurants are doing well with parties — they’re doing more catering,” he said. “They’re not relying on two or four person reservations.”
While meat restaurants traditionally struggle more than dairy, the clientele of both, in terms of in-store customers, remains mostly Jewish.
“Any attempt we make to branch out to the non-Jewish community is difficult because inevitably our costs are higher,” said Daniel Berkowitz, co-owner of kosher bakery Sweet Tammy’s (and a Chronicle board member). “People who don’t eat kosher think ‘that’s not a place for me.’ ”
Berkowitz noted, however, that most of Sweet Tammy’s wedding cakes have been ordered by Christian customers.
Though kosher meat is markedly more expensive than traif (nonkosher meat), dairy options are less cost-stratified. As such, Pittsburgh’s kosher meat outings may now be limited to catered events, but the city’s kosher dairy options are expanding.
In mid-April, Milky Way will open a kiosk in Schenley Plaza in Oakland, a popular spot for students and others lounging in the sun through the summer.
Sweet Tammy’s has grown similarly. In February, the Murray Avenue bakery opened a kiosk in the Jewish Community Center.
“Our expansion was an attempt to increase the convenience to our customer base, and the JCC is a super logical place,” said Berkowitz.
“We’re very excited. We’re banking on this. A lot of the Jewish students spend time there — even the people who work around Oakland,” said Guttman. “That’s a big step. We’re doing a lot of cooking right there — it’ll be fresh.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)