The founder of the Kohelet Foundation dishes on how he's reinventing kosher dining options for local observant Jews.
David Magerman is a disruptive force. Not in the way that a kindergartener’s temper tantrum can negatively affect the classroom, but in the way that Clayton Christenson, the man who coined the phrase “disruptive innovation” intended: as a change agent bringing improvements to products and services in ways that disrupt the existing marketplace. It’s a designation especially suited to Magerman, who was a partner at Renaissance Technologies, one of the world’s most successful hedge fund companies.
The 46-year-old Florida native has been making waves in the Philadelphia Jewish community since launching the Kohelet Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has spent millions to remake the Jewish day school model in the area, in 2008.
Implementing his plan to improve Jewish educational opportunities is only one part of Magerman’s initiative to make Philadelphia a destination as welcoming and attractive to observant Jews as communities in New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles. Two years ago, he opened Citron and Rose, the Merion restaurant that can safely be said to have changed the way that people look at kosher dining in the region. Since then, he has remade the space into the more casual C&R Kitchen, has bankrolled two more kosher ventures — a catering operation and a bakery — and he plans to have The Dairy, a kosher all-day operation, open by the beginning of 2015.
At a cozy, Ikea-furnished table in the back of his Six Points Bakery, Magerman talked about keeping things kosher.
How did you wind up in something as risky as the restaurant business?
What I’m doing here is what I was doing at Renaissance — I’m system-building. The work I did at Renaissance was building systems for trading in markets; what I’m doing here is looking at the system of the Jewish community at large and saying, “OK, this is a system that isn’t working so well. What’s missing, what’s not working properly, what’s broken, what can I do to help?” When I spoke to people five years ago about what they needed in the community, they said that the big things are schools, synagogues, jobs and food. And that last one intrigued me.
They listed their priorities in that order?
No — in fact, it turns out that food is by far the most important one. People who have benefitted enormously from the work I have done in their kids’ schools tell me that they’re so much happier with the work I’ve done in the restaurants. When you ask people why they aren’t moving here, one of the big issues was that there was no place to eat. What I realized was, if I was going to work on the schools, you need people to go to the schools. There is a sense that people who only eat kosher can’t eat a civilized meal — they want to be able to go out to eat like everyone else gets to. C&R Kitchen is that place.
What else are you planning for kosher diners?
All along, Citron and Rose was intended to be the beachhead for the bigger vision of creating a kosher food system in the Greater Philadelphia community, where you could get quality catering, where you could get a casual meal. It wasn’t from a business perspective. I wanted to prove — which I haven’t yet, although I’m working on it — that you could make money doing that once you grow the community to the size it needs to be, to make it something that someone else would eventually want to own. I don’t have a personal desire to be a restaurateur — it’s just what I needed to do to fulfill my whole vision of building the system.
What is the future of kosher dining in the Philadelphia area?
I’m hoping the future is competition. Once I can demonstrate how to do this in a way that is not just affordable but actually profitable, I’m hoping there will be some breadth of options. I think that once people get over the hump that kosher food is good food, I think it will open the door for other kinds of restaurants. This is hopefully the start of growing the concept of mainstream kosher food, as opposed to apologizing for the state of kosher food.
If you could change one perception about kosher food, what would it be?
There is really no difference except for constraints on certain ingredients. I want people who choose to eat kosher to have an experience as rich and filled with quality service and comfort as anyone who chooses not to. I want to show that it is a right that people who keep kosher should have.