Kosher Chinese food might be on its way back to the Washington area. Maybe next month. Maybe in two years.
A group of Kemp Mill businessmen are eyeing Chin & Lee Chinese Carry Out in Kemp Mill Shopping Center and determining whether they could make a go of turning it into a kosher eatery.
It’s a long-held dream for Ami Schreiber, a software developer for Microsoft and Kemp Mill resident.
“I’ve been living in this community for 22 years and since my family moved down here from New Jersey, I’ve been eyeing that Chin & Lee non-kosher Chinese takeout place, so for the better part of two decades, just salivating,” Schreiber said.
Chin & Lee recently posted a notice in nearby Shalom Kosher market that the owners were considering selling the business. Knowing that Schreiber had been wanting to buy the restaurant for years, friends started tagging him in Facebook photos of the flyer.
Now, Schreiber and partners Josh Katz, owner of Ben Yehuda Cafe & Pizzeria, and attorney Richard Sloane are among a few potential buyers, according to Chin & Lee owner Xiang Sheng Lin.
“We’re just looking at options,” Xiang said as his daughter, Helen, translated. “We’re trying to see who might be interested.”
Helen Lin said her father wanted to retire and she’s headed off to college soon. The carry-out place has been around since 1984.
The Washington area has not had a kosher Chinese restaurant since Royal Dragon in Rockville closed last October. The closest option is David Chu’s China Bistro in Baltimore.
“Royal Dragon had been around for as long as I can remember and their closure this past fall left a hole in the kosher restaurant market,” Katz said in an email. “Opening another restaurant that fills a gap in types of food available will allow me to further serve those members of the community who enjoy eating out and having options.”
Schreiber and his partners are conducting a survey to gauge interest in kosher Chinese food. They’ve had about 650 responses so far, Schreiber said.
“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback,” he said. “There’s clearly a demand.” The question is whether the survey answers will translate to sales, said Katz.
Schreiber and Katz said they are looking at demographics, what the profit margin might be and how many meals they’d have to sell to stay in the black.
Kosher certification requires the additional expense of a mashgiach, a ritual supervisor, and kosher food products.
Schreiber said he and his partners would make a decision on whether to pursue buying Chin & Lee by the end of the month. He was optimistic they could begin operations soon after that.
But Xiang Sheng Lin said their timeline for selling the business was “not very soon.” The restaurant’s lease is up in two years and the process of selling is complex, he said.
And even though the process is in its early stages, the group already has a name in mind: Ho Lee Chow.
Mr. Schreiber set off quite the firestorm within the Kemp Mill neighborhood when he sent out an interest survey without noting that the current owners wanted to sell (thus creating the impression of a hostile takeover of the Chin & Lee space) and without explaining to current customers how going kosher would impact the menu, pricing, and operating hours.
The Kemp Mill neighborhood is a diverse community; many residents are Orthodox…and many are not. It was quite galling to read comments like “non-kosher food smells like hell” and “we’ve heard enough from non-kosher people.”
Although I am not Jewish myself, I support the idea of a kosher Chinese carry-out, although I will have to go elsewhere for shrimp lo mein. However, Mr. Schreiber did not present his idea well to the community, and has failed to apologize for creating some very bad feelings within the community.
My cousin was part owner at Kosher Delight in NYC. They had the best kosher Chinese food I’ve ever had!
I had a conversation with Mr. Schreiber yesterday evening. He very much regrets how his proposal came across, and unfortunately he was not able to follow up on the Kemp Mill Civic Association listserv with more background about how the opportunity to transition Chin & Lee came about because the listserv moderator prevented him from doing so. [I will ask the moderator to reconsider.]
In any case, I feel much better about Mr. Schreiber’s intent that he wishes to welcome all members of the Kemp Mill community. I wish him every success, because a kosher Chinese carry-out clearly would serve an un-met need.