The Jewish Advocate

March 21, 2014 Edition

Vendor cries foul after Garden business fails:

Controversy surrounds kosher closing

By Susie Davidson

Special to The Advocate

Hot Nosh, which formerly operated at Boston’s TD Garden, offers kosher vending machines at Fenway Park.

Following the closures of two kosher food concessions at Boston’s TD Garden in the past year, TD has just opened a third incarnation under its own management, Garden owner and operator Delaware North Companies’ Sportservice Concessions.

Will it succeed, or is a kosher sizzle at the Garden invariably doomed to fizzle? A lack of community support, as well as alleged internecine intervention and other mitigating factors were cited as contributors to the demise of Hot Nosh, which was operated by vending machine concessions entrepreneur Wayne Feder, who also purveys kosher fare at Boston’s Fenway Park; and Keep it Kosher, a company owned by New Yorkbased accountant Jonathan Toujian that operates 12 locations in nationwide sports arenas.

“Sportservice will be running it going forward,” TD Garden Director of Communications Tricia McCorkle said in an e-mail.

Feder also operated Hot Nosh at the TD Garden for two years, before an abrupt departure this past September. Toujian came in, changed the game plan to hot and fresh foods with live rabbinical supervision, and expanded the offerings. Yet he, too, closed shop last month.

Boston-based attorney and Celtics season-ticket holder Lance Kawesch, who also organizes game outings of members of his synagogue, Young Israel of Brookline, reported Toujian’s closure on his Facebook page. He then exchanged emails last September with Jeff Behr, a district manager at Delaware North. “Jeff Behr described Keep it Kosher as a company that would offer knishes, hot dogs, sausages, sandwiches and other certified kosher items, with onsite kosher supervision,” recalled Kawesch.

Despite the effort on the Garden’s part, Keep it Kosher lasted only a few months. Kawesch last bought from Toujian at the Celtics’ Feb. 9 game.

“Sportservice is committed to providing kosher options at TD Garden, as we do at other venues,” McCorkle said in a prepared response. “We are in transition with our current kosher vendor, and will soon have a new operation that has been approved by the Rabbinical Council of New England,” it read. “A rabbi will continue to be onsite nightly to ensure proper preparation and supervision, and we are confident the kosher options at TD Garden will fulfill our guests’ requests and provide great options this season.”

Toujian, reached by phone at his home in New York, said he helped connect Sportservice to rabbinical authorities. He thought the new TD service, like his own company, would feature fresh, as opposed to vended kosher foods.“Kosher is no longer a Third World item,” he said. “You can get kosher food in various ways now, at airports, markets, wherever.… Therefore, ballparks and stadiums should offer fresh kosher items. The local community was never happy with buying food from a vending machine,” he said.

Kawesch pointed to other, logistical pitfalls for Feder. “Keep it Kosher had a terrific location outside Loge Section 4, which is just at the top of one of the two main escalators entering the seating sections of the TD Garden,” he said. “But Wayne’s Host Nosh machines had relatively poor locations – outside Balcony Section 304. People who sat in the lower level, the loge, had to go up to the balcony level to get to the machines.”

Regardless, for Toujian, the bottom dollar was the bottom line. “What really drove us to having to close was that we were constantly operating at a loss, and our sales were not sufficient to cover our expenses,” he said. “Unfortunately, certification of kashrut is a very costly, but it’s important to have the mashgiach there because there is nonkosher food very close by, and it’s easy to go unkosher,” he said.

Add to that overhead the higher prices of kosher products, space rental, and insufficient receipts. “Like any food service company, we are a for-profit organization,” said Toujian, noting that a Jewish Heritage Night held in December was their only profitable evening. But he also pointed blame at the prior kosher vendor.

“I was originally contacted by TD Garden management this past September, who said that Wayne’s contract was up as they asked me to take over,” he recalled, alleging that Feder had sent an email to members of the Kosher community stating that he had wanted to stay at TD Garden and was very unhappy with the closure. “Every time we took a step forward, Feder stepped in the way,” said Toujian. “We were never really given the opportunity to let the community know we were there.”He claimed that Feder called him in a threatening manner, and had also smeared Keep it Kosher on the Internet, even writing on Keep it Kosher’s own website. The Jewish Advocate found one negative comment left by “Alter” in December under a post announcing kosher food at TD Garden on YeahThats- Kosher, a crowd-sourced weblog for kosher travelers: “keep it kosher is a fraud the food is horrible..he is not in many of the places he claims and frankly the Hot Nosh Food was way better (sic).”

“The comment is very consistent with what Feder said verbally to me, and it promoted Hot Nosh,”said Toujian in a later conversation. He said Feder was down to TD Garden and Fenway Park, and he didn’t want to lose them. (Feder still operates at Fenway, as well as, according to Hot Nosh’s website, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital, Brandeis University,and the Maimonides School.) In addition to franks, pizza and knishes, a 2013 CNN Money feature reported that Feder’s machines offer mozzarella sticks, onion rings and baked ziti, and that each item is ready, with an oven-baked flavor and texture,in 60 to 90 seconds.

Toujian also claimed there was talk of banning Feder from the premises, but TD Garden management did not respond to a request to confirm this allegation.

In a telephone conversation, Feder categorically denied Toujian’s allegations. “They are incorrect, and nothing of the sort occurred,” he maintained. “I left the Garden in September with a handshake, in a very cordial manner. The issues regarding my contract and reason for not returning are between the Garden and myself,” he added, stressing that he had never gone on social network sites, nor made any public statements. He noted that his machines were still at TD Garden, for employees’ use.”

“I can only comment on the stand that I worked at, which would be Jonathan’s,” said Va’ad mashgiach Mayer Krochmal. “The closing was unfortunate, not just for the kosher consumer, but quite a few ‘Halal’ patrons as well.” He also cited a lack of proper signage, advertisement and selection: “For instance, it was one of the only two or three other stands on the entire loge level that sold Budweiser beer, which is a very popular item. But because there was no sign, people would just walk right by.” The issue was raised, he explained, but nothing was done.

“However, people were very happy that they had a kosher option, and were always asking when the menu would expand,” Krochmal said. “The stand was relatively easy to run and maintain from both a kashrut and food quality standpoint, and the Garden staff were always very polite and helpful,and I never had any issues with them,” he said. “They would go above and beyond to make sure we had everything we needed, and I suspect this was the standard for all the stands.”

Toujian lamented leaving as well: “You would think that being in such an iconic arena, with such old franchises like the Bruins and the Celtics, it would have succeeded, but unfortunately it wasn’t really the opportunity that we thought it would be.” Keep it Kosher’s other 12 locations are doing well, he said. “Jews are sports fans but not all are kosher, and our larger purpose is to perform a mitzvah and provide kosher food to the Jewish community.”

“The Boston community should communicate more with kosher vendors such as myself,” he added. “There was a local kosher restaurant that served food at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles. When they went out of business, we were asked to come to their stadium, and the former owner became one of our better customers.”

Toujian admitted that he isn’t entirely optimistic about the future of kosher eats at TD. “Between the bad experience they had with Feder and with ours not showing any promise, it’s hard to be positive,” he said.

But Krochmal said better signage as well as community advertising could only help a future operation. And for him, that includes the TD community. “A shout-out now and then from the TD Garden Jumbotron probably wouldn’t have hurt us either,” he reflected.