Community Staple Got Kosher ceases restaurant operations

Life can change at lightning speed in the kosher food business.

On Monday of last week, the following ad appeared on Facebook:

“It is with deep sadness that I announce today that Harissa Restaurant and Got Kosher Deli & Bakery will be closed from January 23.”

The next Got Kosher newsletter arrived 48 hours later:

“We will be open Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at our current location, 8916 Pico Blvd., for challahs and breads – and every Friday only until open daily at our new bakery, 8758 Pico Blvd. “

The sadly familiar – but certainly not the last – chapter of Got Kosher’s 17 years was written by owner Alain Cohen, whose fascinating journey dominates his business:

“Since the start of COVID, we have remained open for 22 months. But today, with the lack of customers, the lack of employees, the lack of income and the owner’s decision to sell the building, we have come to the conclusion that it is no longer possible for us to keep it. We have been losing money for months, and it is not possible to do more.

At 66, the dynamic and multi-talented Cohen possesses more vigor than people a third of his age.

“Instead of looking at this as if we’re closing the business, I’m telling my friends that I’m downsizing, restructuring to bounce back.”
—Alain Cohen

“Instead of looking at this as if we’re closing the business, I’m telling my friends I’m downsizing, restructuring to bounce back,” he said.

While Cohen admits to feeling relief right now (“there’s no point running a company that’s losing money”), he’s quickly shifting gears.

“I’m excited to move on and try something else,” he said. “With us, everything will be perfect. I want to focus on selling my challah to supermarket chains. I want to spread quality foods that will enter the mainstream.

The mathematics of the pandemic rattled the toughest of nerves, but not Cohen’s. Once he had a fleet of 40 employees. “Overnight in March 2020, we lost 50% of the business to start, but I still had 75-80% of the expenses,” he said. “I went from manager to chef-creator looking at recipes, to cooking in the kitchen and finally managing all the weight.”

This was not how Cohen envisioned the culminating chapter of his professional life, which is why he does not surrender. In the early 1960s, his family joined an ongoing Jewish exodus, fleeing Tunisia for France following numerous government disputes. He started helping his father in the kitchen at the age of nine and discovered French and Tunisian cuisine.

“I wasn’t kosher back then,” he said. “My family was, but I wasn’t. It became an asset in my life because I learned what extremely good food can be. My palate knew where things needed to be. The North African culture that I just would give me the knowledge of fresh ingredients, all the spices and herbs, and how to make them good.

When Cohen grew up, he wanted to work in show business; he had made a film about the Jews on the Tunisian island of Djerba (where “Star Wars” was filmed). He moved to Los Angeles, but concluded that a film career would elude him. Food then took the first place in his mind.

“When I was faced with the reality of opening a kosher restaurant, I had a crisis of conscience: if I’m selling kosher food, I’d better be kosher myself. Otherwise, I can’t not look at myself in the mirror.

Alain Cohen (Photo by Ari L. Noonan)

He followed a kosher diet overnight. “I felt very good there. A whole weight has been lifted from me. It was like coming home. All my life, every time I ate non-kosher, I heard a little voice say, “Ah, not good.” I remember my mother telling me when I was about six years old, when I was going to school after we moved to France, “Don’t eat treyf. If you do, you will die.'”

When Cohen opened Got Kosher, he sold deli meats and Shabbat food, and quickly found success. He attributes it to his good palace, which he says is a “gift from God”. He also used the skills he learned working with his father in the kitchen, such as how to produce good fast food on a large scale.

“I took the menu my family was doing – grilled meat, fried fish, couscous – and did it like a Parisian bistro in the presentation,” he said.

He believes this style inspired the exotic kosher cuisines that exploded in its wake.

Cohen said the creation of the challah pretzel put Got Kosher on the map.

“I worked at La Brea bakery as a manager,” he said. “Nancy Silverton was my boss. She pulled out some amazing loaves. She made a slim version of a [pretzel] baguette. Then I saw a bakery in San Vicente that offered croissants with pretzels. When I came here and wanted something really different and quirky, the idea came to me that we Jews were challah related. Why not make a pretzel out of it? So I did. So I said, ‘let’s push it further. Let’s say Belgian pieces of chocolate in it.

What followed was a whole line of exotic gourmet challah and Got Kosher’s cemented status in the community.

“People reacted because there was nothing else like it,” Cohen said.

Today, even if the restaurateur has to change his business model, he knows that this is not the end of his work in the kosher food sector.

“The business is not over,” he said. “And I haven’t finished.”

Previous Snow, sleet ahead + free Covid test kits in Westford
Next Short stop: explore Savory Vietnam's menu