This Restaurant Owner Put a Kosher Spin on Sushi, and Got Great Results

Restaurants work on narrow profit margins, as anyone in the business will tell you. You might pay $20 for a chicken dish that cost the restaurant $4, but that other $16 pays salaries, rent and overhead. Anything left over — and it usually isn’t much — is profit.

For kosher restaurants, the margins are even tighter. Most Orthodox Jews who frequent kosher restaurants come with families larger than that of the average American household. A dining experience has to be top notch in order to justify the expense of bringing the entire family out or paying for a babysitter for a date.

In my hometown of Highland Park, N.J., there are a handful of kosher restaurants that service a few thousand Orthodox Jewish families in two surrounding towns. Because of the razor thin margins, none of these restaurants have really thrived and a good number have closed over the years.

Never before in anyone’s memory has one actually expanded. That is until local resident and former Wall Street executive Michael Kornblum opened a sushi restaurant called Sushiana.

Kosher restaurants don’t have it easy. Ingredients — especially meats and cheeses — are more expensive. In a restaurant, a rabbi employed by the local Va’ad — a governing agency in charge of kosher supervision — either works at the establishment full time or stops in frequently (and unannounced) to make spot checks. Employing a rabbi is another salary that kosher restaurateurs face that non-kosher restaurant owners needn’t factor in.

What’s more, the Jewish Sabbath is from Friday night to Saturday night, sundown to sundown. For non-kosher restaurants this is a coveted night where a significant portion of their business is done. The vast majority of Jewish-owned kosher restaurants close during that period.

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Michael Kornblum, center with chefs at Sushiana | Photo: Sushiana Facebook

Sushiana is unique among sushi joints. Most notably, it is completely meat and dairy-free. Kosher dietary laws are complicated but succinct. Orthodox Jews do not:

  • Eat meat and dairy together. Restaurants either serve meat or dairy, but never both. Not only is there no such thing as kosher chicken Parmesan, Jewish law mandates waiting a certain amount of time (usually between three and six hours, according to familial custom) between eating meat and dairy. If we have chicken for dinner, we can’t have cheesecake or ice cream for dessert.
  • Eat pork or shellfish, either. Shellfish is an essential ingredient in most sushi restaurants, but you won’t find any shrimp or lobster on Sushiana’s menu.

With such razor thin margins and a town that has a reputation for being a difficult place to do business, how is Kornblum succeeding?

Quite simply, Kornblum doesn’t stop trying or innovating.

Early on, the Va’ad told Kornblum of a rule that forbids cut onions from being left out overnight. So Kornblum decided to put onion rings on the menu instead of disposing of any leftovers. Innovation and cost-consciousness of that sort is what has propelled Sushiana from a tiny storefront on Raritan Avenue to a location three times as large on 4th Street.

Many kosher restaurant owners are content to merely get by. After all, the Orthodox Jewish clientele is essentially a captive audience. When there’s only one pizza shop or Chinese place in town, it can be easy to let standards lapse. Carpeting gets drab, windows go unwashed, menus are replete with typos. If standards in the front of the house are so low, imagine what they’re like in the back.

Unlike most kosher “foodies,” Kornblum’s standards can be as high as his many non-Jewish customers. Few kosher restaurants attract non-kosher clientele, but Sushiana with its allergy-friendly menu does just that.

“Few kosher restaurants attract non-kosher clientele, but Sushiana with its allergy-friendly menu does just that.”

Kornblum attributes his success to thinking of non-kosher restaurants next door as his competition. He imagines the non-kosher bar and grill to be the best kosher restaurant in New York City and struggles to keep pace.

Because of a lack of kosher restaurants in many towns and cities, restaurants try to do too much without any expertise in the varied cuisines they try to serve. Sushiana aimed to do one thing and do it exceptionally well. Kornblum hired professional non-kosher kitchen staff and trained them in the dietary laws. Everything that comes into the kitchen is kosher, but Kornblum leaves it to the chefs to expertly prepare the ingredients. After its expansion, Sushiana has begun to expand slowly into other Asian fare, including Indian and Chinese — but always with a great amount of testing and care.

Even though Kornblum has always been Jewish, he hasn’t always been Orthodox. He got his start in the restaurant business as the assistant manager of a jazz club in New York City. It was a fast-paced job, but he learned the ropes while seeing some of his favorite acts live on stage. He eventually entered the world of finance, but never lost his love of food or entertaining. Kornblum’s unusual experience in restaurants and high-finance has proved an ideal skillset for navigating a notoriously challenging business.

Kornblum says it’s important to be active in the local Jewish community. He frequently donates a portion of the restaurant’s profits to charities close to the hearts of his customers: local Jewish schools, the ambulance corps, and synagogues. Recently, he offered a 10 percent discount to anyone who donated blood to a beloved young boy in need of a transfusion at a local hospital.

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Kornblum, left, takes pride in being involved in his community and makes sure to give back to those in need | Photo: Sushiana Facebook

Kornblum doesn’t do charity work for publicity, but his good deeds are rewarded both in heaven and on Earth. Unlike any other restaurateur in Highland Park, Kornblum has been able to combine that faith with business savvy and the ability to run a successful and thriving restaurant in one of the toughest markets there is.

Rebecca Hersh, executive director of Main Street Highland Park, lauds Kornblum for his desire to be involved in all parts of the community, not just the Jewish sector. “He is always eager to participate in downtown events, support community causes, and help make the downtown as vibrant and attractive as possible,” she told Opportunity Lives. “It’s locally owned businesses like Sushiana that make Highland Park so great.”

Bethany Mandel is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @bethanyshondark.

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