Feeding a Need: Kravings in Oak Park Serves Gourmet Kosher in a Modern Atmosphere

It didn’t take much market research for Daniel Kohn to pinpoint the target audience for his kosher restaurant in Oak Park. The 28-year-old, his wife, his friends…they are the audience, and what they want is Kosher food that is much more than matzo ball soup, kugel and challah. They want meals  – steak, burgers, brisket, sushi  – they would have at a favorite restaurant; quality, flavorful Kosher food, something not nearly as easy to find in metro Detroit as in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles.
That missing part of the metro Detroit food scene convinced Kohn to open Kravings nearly six months ago in a strip mall off Greenfield Road, a hop from I-696 in Oak Park. The transformation of the traditional Jewish deli that occupied the space for 25 years before the owner retired last year is the visual for the Generation Y’ing of local Kosher cuisine.
The small eat-in with five four-tops and several bar stools along a window and at the sushi bar is no longer stereotypical, TV-set Jewish deli. While the deli cases are still there with salads, sandwich ingredients, casseroles, entrees, and desserts, above them now are clusters of chic glass globe lights. Over the reclaimed wood tables hang carved wooden light fixtures. The theme is a trendy mash-up of rustic, contemporary, urban, and industrial meant to speak to the targeted clientele that wants a different vibe when keeping Kosher while eating out.
After living in New York before moving back to Oakland County three years ago, where he grew up, Kohn, like many locals his age, experienced how good Kosher can be. And as the local Jewish community and organizations such as JARC find ways to lure 20- and 30-something talents back to metro Detroit, more restaurants like Kravings are needed to make the sell.
“We’re not just a random crowd. We are that crowd…and Kravings is showing you can have great food that’s Kosher,” says Kohn, sitting at a table in the packed restaurant next to his mom, Leah Kohn.
In the short time since Kravings opened (a smooth process thanks to the city of Oak Park’s Economic Development Department), other modern Kosher establishments have launched or are soon to open, adding to some Oakland County favorites – Jerusalem Pizza, Sara’s Deli and others. Dave’s Gourmet in Oak Park closed for renovations just after Kravings opened and will reopen soon, selling gourmet burgers. Kosher beef and meat is a cornerstone for the new Kosher.
“The scene has been changing. There’s been a lot of movement in the town,” Kohn says. He takes his meals at many of the Kosher eateries, old and new. To some it may seem like dining with the enemy, but “we see this as a good thing to have more Kosher restaurants, especially good ones.”
“Business breeds business,” says Leah Kohn, who is president and CEO of the 40-plus-year-old Quality Kosher Catering in Southfield, a business started by Daniel Kohn’s grandmother. Requests for smaller take-outs from the catering operation also fed the idea of opening a takeout.
While being strict, certified Kosher is the foundation of Kravings, it is attracting more than the young set Kohn expected. The dining room is a melange of customers, Yamaka and beard-wearing Jewish faithful, younger and older, mixed with maxi-dress wearing college students and business lunch hosts keeping Kosher and non-Kosher clients happy. Together they are proof that Kosher, which Forbes.com recently posed as the next food gourmet food trend, may finally be going mainstream in metro Detroit, many years after it became a staple in big cities with large Jewish populations.
Kohn says that Kravings’ Kosher is appealing to young Jews looking for new Kosher menu items as well as the older generation that comes for the traditional Kosher favorites, which they demanded stay on the menu and at the same price. Other diners are seeking out food prepared in ways they see as healthier, more ethical, or more in line with dietary restrictions such as dairy-free (Kosher serves no cheese).
Whoever comes and for whatever reason they come, Kravings is feeding a brisk takeout business and a steady counter service looking for top-grade steaks, burgers, chicken, and beef bacon (it tastes like pork!) that are fired up on a grill. The menu is the handiwork of Executive Chef Mike Cusumano, chefs Larry Holloway and Michael Miller, and their staff.
Leah Kohn has seen the change in Kosher appetites coming for years.
“I think also there was a misconception about Kosher years so. People thought it was limiting your cuisine possibilities,” she says. “That is not the case. We can make high-quality, wonderful Kosher food, and we do. It’s a much bigger market than people think. And I think what’s really made us see this as a great opportunity is all the young people coming back to town. They need it. They’ve lived on the East Coast, where Kosher is everywhere. If they’re going to come back here, there are key things they need: education, synagogue, and good places to eat.”
Coming from the family business made opening Kravings more than palatable, but the involvement from the City of Oak Park Economic Development Department turned what can be a burdensome, time-consuming, sometimes frustrating process into something actually enjoyable, Kohn says.
Emily Doerr in particular, the former Economic Development Director for the city of Oak Park, “was truly interested in our business and what we wanted it to be. She got to know us and understood what we wanted to do.”
She took the roadblocks out of the path to opening day.
“She definitely expedited some of the logistics, but even more importantly than that she really cared about helping a small business,” Kohn says. “In today’s world, if you watch CNN or Fox News, they’re always mentioning small business and what small businesses need to grow. But the problem in our country is we don’t practice what we preach. We don’t put these ideas into action. There are all [these] systems in place that actually hinder small business, and a lot of times the city seems to do more damage than help.”
Cities need more liaisons like Doerr, “not employees who come around to find what you’re doing wrong.”
“It was a great experience all around,” he says. “It’s something there needs to be more of.”
Kravings also found an advocate in JARC, the nonprofit working to bring young local Jews back home as a sideline to its service of providing housing and support to disabled adults. JARC made sure its access to the greater Detroit community knew about Kravings. The relationship with JARC started when Kohn decided to make philanthropy a part of Kravings business plan and named JARC the beneficiary of special events such as opening week when 25 percent of profits went to the Farmington Hills-based organization.
JARC, in turn, responded with social media fan-outs, print promotions of Kravings, and face-to-face visits to Kravings by the CEO, event manager and other employees.
Kohn believes other nonprofits or community organizations should follow JARC’s approach to working with its supporters, especially small businesses whose success might help the clients those organizations care for.
“It’s just an amazing organization in so many ways,” he says. “They have supported us because we supported them.”
Customers are showing their support too.
“Within the first week of business they were asking when we were opening the second location,” says Kohn, hinting that West Bloomfield might be the destination for a sequel to Oak Park Kravings. “It’s too soon. We don’t want to move on to B before we’ve got A totally down.”
Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer and development news editor for metromode.com