Steaks and scandal: Kosher price war leads to lawsuit

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Dmitriy Berezovskiy says his landlord and the local rabbinical council are trying to drive his North Riverdale restaurant, K Grill House, out of business — simply because his wife isn’t Jewish.

He filed suit last month with the Bronx County supreme court, demanding both Riverdale Holding Co. — which holds his lease — and Vaad Ha’Rabbonim of Riverdale back off, and fork over millions of dollars in damages in the process.

Moses Marx of Riverdale Holding and Rabbis Mordechai Willig and Asher Bush of the Vaad, began trying to bankrupt the 5693 Riverdale Ave., restaurant at the same time they learned Berezovskiy didn’t marry Jewish, he claimed. Vaad threatened K Grill’s kosher certification if Berezovskiy refused to raise prices so that neighboring kosher eateries like fast food Mexican joint Carlos & Gabby’s and the Riverdale Kosher Market could compete, according to the lawsuit.

Such practices involving pricing seem very odd, said Rachel Weingarten, who used to own a muffin business and says she’s fairly well-versed in the laws of kashruth — the body of Jewish religious laws concerning the suitability of food.

The costs of earning kosher certification can be onerous, Weingarten said, but it also opens the door to a rather dedicated kosher market — a trade-off many restaurateurs see as worthwhile.

“I find it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to believe, though, that any rabbinical counsel would insist he raise his prices,” Weingarten said.

The lawsuit claims Marx breached the lease, failing to observe its terms in “good faith.” It also claims Willig and Bush violated the Donnelly Act — New York’s antitrust law enacted in 1899 — interfering with the lease. The landlord and the Vaad rabbis conspired to diminish the value of K Grill, according to the lawsuit, with the intention of forcing Berezovskiy to surrender and vacate his Riverdale Avenue location.

None of the defendants in the suit would comment.

 

Finding a good meal

Berezovskiy first signed his lease in February 2015, according to the lawsuit. An immigrant from the former Soviet Union who became a devout Jew in later years, Berezovskiy wanted to build a kosher restaurant in his adopted home of Riverdale.

Marx was for Berezovskiy’s plan, according to the suit, since it would replace a non-kosher eatery that was there before. Now, Marx could welcome “a restaurant where he could have a good meal any time he wanted.”

Berezovskiy spent more than $1 million on construction, equipment and other improvements to the 200-seat establishment, the suit said. Prior to opening, he made an arrangement with the local Vaad for kosher certification at an annual cost of $2,500 with a mashgiach — a supervisor who ensures a restaurant or food producer complies with Jewish dietary laws — to be paid $15 an hour.

Soon after K Grill opened, however, the Vaad brought in a second certifying agency, Kof-K, without explanation, shooting up certification costs to $9,000 annually, and increasing the mashgiach’s rate to $20 an hour.

Normally, Kof-K doesn’t supervise local restaurants unless requested to do so, focusing mainly on manufacturing, said Rabbi Daniel Senter, who works for the organization. For K Grill, Kof-K stepped in at the request of the local Vaad.

“They believed that their operation was beyond the scope of what they could handle by themselves, which is commonly the case,” Senter said. “They asked us to join them in certification, which we gladly did.” 

When Berezovskiy tried to replace the certification arrangement with another agency — permitted by the terms of the lease, according to the lawsuit — Willig and Bush threatened to revoke his certification. Meanwhile, other agencies wouldn’t certify K Grill without the rabbis’ consent, which they refused to give.

Around August 2015, Bush told Berezovskiy he couldn’t sell the same product as two other kosher establishments in the area, according to the suit. K Grill had found itself competing with Carlos & Gabby’s as well as the Riverdale Kosher Market for the lunch crowd from nearby Salanter Akiba Riverdale High School.

The Vaad allowed Berezovskiy to sell burgers and sandwiches, provided he charge $3 to $5 more than his competitors, the lawsuit claims — almost $12 for a sandwich, compared to $7.49 at Carlos & Gabby’s.

After a Willig-led arbitration tribunal, K Grill was forced to raise its hamburger prices by $1.50, effectively pricing the restaurant out of the market. That cost Berezovksiy $5,000 a week in school lunch business, the lawsuit alleges.

Ralph Haber, who bought Carlos & Gabby’s last September, said he knew nothing about what happened before he arrived. 

Elisha Block, owner of the Riverdale Kosher Market as well as the neighboring Pizza Block in Skyview Shopping Center, called Berezovskiy’s claims “ridiculous.”

“The guy is reaching,” Block said. “He’s in a business he knows nothing about. He’s a dry cleaner by trade, and he bought a business that he knows nothing about, and I guess he’s reaching right now to try and save face.”

Berezovskiy turned K Grill into a place that is “drop-dead, breathtaking” inside, Block said. But if he’s trying so hard to grab the lunch market, he must be struggling to fill the restaurant up for dinner, he added. 

“I can’t really tell you why he would say something like that, but there’s absolutely no basis,” Block said. “The landlord is a professional outfit, the kosher supervision is a very professional outfit, and the only way the Vaad of Riverdale would give him a hard time is if he wasn’t adhering to the standards that they set forth.”

 

Making it work

In an attempt to bring back business, Berezovskiy started a $15 all-you-can-eat deal on Wednesdays, which attracted more than 100 SAR students on a regular basis, the lawsuit said. About a week after Berezovksiy started the promotion, however, the kosher market began offering $1 burgers and sandwiches on Wednesdays. When Berezovskiy complained to the Vaad, nothing was done.

When Berezovksiy lowered his burger prices again that summer, Bush showed up at K Grill and ripped the Vaad certificate from the door, demanding Berezovskiy raise his prices immediately. Although Berezovskiy said he complied, the suit claims Willig and Bush perpetuated false rumors in the community and local synagogues that K Grill’s kosher certification had been revoked.

With K Grill losing business from the kosher community, Berezovskiy called on Marx to intervene, according to the lawsuit. Instead the landlord demanded he leave the property.

Berezovskiy wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but told The Riverdale Press last year after news surfaced his restaurant was for sale that he tried everything he could to keep the kosher community satisfied.

“I’m a religious guy, but I’m not very orthodox,” Berezovskiy said. “I believe in God, I go to synagogue, I do a lot for the community. (But) this is not a synagogue. 

“This is a kosher restaurant, and I have to keep standards.”

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