A rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar … yet

A rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar … yet

It’s not every day that a liquor license comes up for sale in Teaneck. (State licensing laws limit the number of licenses in a formula based on a town’s population.)

So when Jonathan Gellis heard that the owner of Vinny O’s in Teaneck was looking to sell the establishment, including the license, after 28 years behind the bar, he realized that only one of the more than 20 kosher restaurants in Teaneck could sell alcohol.

That seemed to be an opportunity.

Mr. Gellis is a stockbroker by day. He’s used to working in a regulated business – and the alcohol business in New Jersey is highly regulated.

Jonathan Gellis has encountered a series of rejections in his attempt to open a Teaneck establishment known as The Doghouse.

Mr. Gellis grew up in Teaneck; his parents moved the family here from Brooklyn in 1975, back when the town had only one kosher restaurant. His four children attend Yeshivat Noam and the Frisch School, and he serves on the board of both institutions. He also is president of Congregation Keter Torah.

So he took it for granted that after he renovated Vinny’s, polishing the old oak tables and laminating them with baseball cards, and installed 28 TV screens that could display nine different games between them, that he would be able to open Teaneck’s first kosher sports bar – he and his partners plan to call it The Doghouse – without too much difficulty.

Of course, there were obstacles.

The township’s inspector didn’t like the way the plumber installed a fixture, so it had to be redone, to take one example.

But such surprises were expected. They just added time.

Securing kosher certification, however, has proven to be trickier than Mr. Gellis had thought it would be.

His initial plans to open this coming week have been postponed – he hopes only until July 15 – pending approval by a kashrut certifying agency.

Immediately after the deal to buy the bar – for a reported $300,000 – was finalized, he approached the Rabbinic Council of Bergen County, the county’s Orthodox rabbinic organization, which generally provides certification to local restaurants, to ask for supervision.

He was turned down.

“While we hold Mr. Gellis and his associates in high regard, it is RCBC policy not to disclose the details of our internal deliberations,” said the council’s executive director, Rabbi Meier Brueckheimer, in an email to the Jewish Standard.

Rabbi Brueckheimer, who like Mr. Gellis is a member of Keter Torah, did not give the would-be restaurateur a reason for the ruling. But it seems a fair guess that the council, made up of Orthodox rabbis, felt uncomfortable giving its kosher stamp to a bar. (The one area kosher restaurant with a liquor license is NoBo Wine and Grill, coincidentally located across Palisades Avenue from The Doghouse. As its name indicates, though, it serves only wine, not hard liquor.

“We asked the RCBC to partner with us,” Mr. Gellis said. “If you hear of a problem, let’s talk about it together,” he said he told them. “We all live in this community.”

The Bergen County rabbis did vote to give Mr. Gellis permission to ask other kashrut agencies for supervision. So before Passover, he had reached out to the Orthodox Union, and officials there agreed to give him certification, and sent him an unsigned contract. Shortly after the holiday, he sent it back, signed.

No dice.

Mr. Gellis said that the OU asked for clarification from the local council that it would be OK for the agency to supervise his Teaneck establishment. He got the OU the clarification.

The OU asked that The Doghouse not be advertised as a bar.

Mr. Gellis agreed, and speaks of it as “a family restaurant.”

The OU wanted to ensure that the staff was appropriately addressed, Mr. Gellis said. He had no problems with that.

And as the father of teenager himself, he decided not to sell alcohol until after 3 p.m. and to kick out unaccompanied minors at 10 p.m.

But the deal still hasn’t closed, and he hasn’t received a clear explanation of the holdup from the OU. The OU’s kashrut department did not reply to emails from this paper seeking comment.

Now, Mr. Gellis is speaking with two other kashrut agencies – he declined to say which. But one likely possibility is the Kof-K Kosher supervision agency, whose offices are just around the corner from The Doghouse – and which supervises a kosher restaurant in Manhattan that bills itself as a sports bar.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gellis is downplaying worries that his establishment will prove a bad influence on the Teaneck community in general, and on the neighborhood in particular. That neighborhood of Teaneck – the Plaza – is rich in kosher restaurants, many of which draw lunchtime traffic from three nearby yeshiva high schools.

“We’re not referring to ourself as a sports bar, but as a kosher restaurant for the family,” Mr. Gellis said. You can only drink if you’re 21 or older.”

But one neighborhood critic is not assuaged.

“The Gemara says that if you go into a perfume shop, whether you buy something or not you come out smelling of perfume,” said Varda Hager. “Why do we need drinks at all?”

She sent a letter to the OU through its website protesting the possibility of the organization’s certifying The Doghouse, writing, “Don’t our children have enough distractions that give wrong messages?”

She did not receive a reply.

“I live in this world,” she said in a later interview. “It’s a rough world to navigate. I don’t want to be sappy and say have a tehillim (psalms) bar – I’m not talking about this – but why do something that has negative connotations attached to it?

“Why would you name it Doghouse? What’s the message? Everyone I spoke to said it means ‘I’m in trouble with my wife.'”

Mr. Gellis said the name did not mean that at all. Instead, it refers to frankfurters.

“It came from our not wanting to compete directly with any restaurant in town, so we will have a specialty hot dog bar” with different varieties of hot dogs and sausages and toppings, he said.

He is stress-testing different varieties of buns at home.

But his cook can’t actually get to work on the menu – which also will include beef jerky, barbecue brisket sandwich, and wings – until there’s a mashgiach to ensure that all the cooking is kosher.

Until then, the would-be restaurant entrepreneur might as well be, well, in the doghouse.

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