WEST ROGERS PARK — For Amrit Patel, going kosher was the best business decision he’s ever made.
Patel, who immigrated to the Chicago area in 1971 from India, owns the only certified kosher Dunkin’ Donuts in the Windy City, located on West Devon Avenue.
Things were slow when he took over in 1974, he said. Other stores were thriving, while he was left wondering why no one would eat his doughnuts.
“When I first started,” Patel said, “I didn’t know what kosher was. I couldn’t pay the light bill.”
But then, at the recommendation of a neighborhood rabbi, he pursued and was given a kosher certification, and he said his business doubled almost right away.
Keeping a kosher certification isn’t easy. Patel said a rabbi inspects the food and the kitchen area once or twice a day; no outside food is allowed; and if the pilot light goes out in the oven, a rabbi must come to re-light it, as all kosher food must be “cooked” by a rabbi.
But finding a rabbi isn’t too difficult in West Rogers Park — an area that's home to 25,000 Orthodox Jews, according to the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce. Patel said would go across the street to a restaurant, where a rabbi worked, or he would search the neighborhood streets.
Other kosher rules prohibit ham and mixing dairy and meats, so a maple bar sprinkled with bacon bits is most certainly not allowed. But all food must be certified kosher, so when Dunkin’ Donuts comes out with a new special for its franchises, Patel said he can’t offer it until he finds kosher substitute ingredients.
The operation at Dunkin' Donuts, however, isn't as complicated and rigorous as at a full-service kosher restaurant, said Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, who supervises the certification of kosher restaurants at the Chicago Rabbinical Council.
At a sit-down restaurant, for example, where flour and water must be mixed a certain way and all vegetables must be inspected for insects, an approved rabbi must be present at all times.
"It’s a very simple operation in regards to a restaurant," he said of Patel's Dunkin' Donuts. "It’s a well-run operation because ingredients come in already as kosher."
Rachel Prero, a longtime customer of Patel, said it’s a ritual for students from Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov all-girls high school just down the street to go in at lunch. Patel said that at 11:30 a.m., like clockwork, 25 girls line up at the counter, dressed in traditional Jewish garb, ready to spend their daily allowance.
“Oh yes,” Prero said. “The Jewish high school girls go there every day.”
Patel said 80 percent of his customers are Jewish, but on the Sabbath, or on a Jewish holiday, he loses that segment of his customer base.
“During Passover,” Patel said, “I only do 50 percent of usual business. But in the three days after [the holiday], I make it up.”
Patel’s establishment is doing well in the neighborhood, even when nestled among other kosher places with decidedly Jewish names like, “Tel-Aviv Kosher Bakery” and “Chalavi & Main Pizza.” Amie Zander, executive director of the West Ridge chamber, said several kosher restaurants in the neighborhood were struggling to stay open, while some recently have closed.
Despite a growing Orthodox community in the area, Zander said kosher mom-and-pop grocery stores and restaurants have had trouble matching competitive prices since a kosher Jewel-Osco opened on Howard Street in Evanston.
“It killed out small-business owners,” she said. “They can’t compete pricewise.”
Yet Patel has done well in the doughnut and coffee business.
On Saturday nights, after sundown, the Jewish Sabbath concludes, and his shop fills with customers. Sometimes, Patel said, the line could be long, and he often ran out of doughnuts, leaving people waiting.
“But they never complain; they wait patiently,” he said. “I have the best customers.”
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