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Articles

Food Service Excellence

By Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Administrative Rabbinic Coordinator

January 2024

Introduction

What does it take for the hashgachah on a restaurant or caterer to go from “average” to “superb”?  What differentiates the mediocre certifiers from those who are outstanding?  We posed these questions to kashrus professionals, and the following is based on dozens of responses they provided.

Standards

To function properly, a hashgachah must have clearly defined policies and procedures – and even better is when those are in writing.  Then owners, Mashgichim, and the public, know exactly what is expected of them, and it also allows for consistent enforcement.  Creating policies requires staff who are familiar with food service and with generally accepted practices, and regular contact with a Posek who guides the hashgachah on halachic issues and on what should be considered “acceptable” for their community.  In this context, an important guiding principle should be the commitment that everything should be as “l’chatchilah” as physically possible.

Some areas where expertise and policies are important are (a) decision-making regarding which ingredients and hashgachos to accept as kosher, and (b) positions regarding kashering (e.g., insisting on aino ben yomo, determining cleanliness of commercial dishwashers, and which items require libun gamur).  It has also become “standard” that food service locations – and particularly those which serve meat – must have a shomer Shabbos Mashgiach on duty whenever the kitchen is open, or food is being served.  In this context, the gold standard is a Mashgiach who is paid by the hashgachah (rather than the owner) and has no managerial or similar responsibilities that might distract him from his hashgachah tasks.

The area which requires the most research, training, and consulting with peers from other hashgachos, is bedikas tolaim: the checking and cleaning of vegetables (and fruits) to avoid insects.  There are constant updates to infestation levels and methods of inspection, and the staff must keep their finger on the pulse of this important topic, and properly train and supervise the Mashgichim in this area, to ensure that the food served is kosher.  The best hashgachos have supervisors (e.g., RC’s – Rabbinic Coordinators) who have strong familiarity with everything related to this topic, create clear and realistic policies, and share this with the onsite Mashgichim.  At the same time, they must communicate with owners, so that there is a good system (and plenty of time) for the Mashgiach to fulfill his responsibilities.

Depending on the community, the local hashgachah might insist on food being chalav Yisroel, pas Yisroel (i.e., not pas paltar), bishul Yisroel even according to Sephardic requirements, and/or yoshon.  They might also take a stand on non-kashrus issues, such as the entertainment at certified venues, which they feel represents the spiritual level of their constituents.

One last point is that hashgachos which are confident and proud of their policies, are comfortable sharing those positions with consumers, local Rabbonim, and other agencies.  Transparency and the willingness to defend one’s decisions are the hallmark of an organization whose leaders want to do the “right thing” and have invested effort into developing well-reasoned positions.

Oversight

The hashgachah’s job is to oversee the production and serving of food to ensure that it is kosher.  In the modern era that involves many factors, including “organizational”, supervisors, and Mashgichim, as follows:

The organizational structure (the “Va’ad”) is typically comprised of local Rabbanim who volunteer their time to serve as the Board of Directors for the hashgachah.  They set general policies, hire the Administrator, and bear ultimate responsibility for the hashgachah’s actions.  While they provide checks and balances to the people employed by the hashgachah, the staff must know that they will support and back their decisions.  To properly fulfill their responsibilities, they must be organized, meet with some regularity, have some understanding of trends and practices in the industry, and be willing to adapt, make difficult decisions, and admit to mistakes.  Hashgachos arranged in this manner are inherently preferable to “private” certifications run by a single individual.

Rabbinic Coordinators (RCs) perform initial inspections and are intimately familiar with the goings-on at each certified location.  They and/or the Yotzeh V’nichnas visit each establishment at least once a week, train and supervise Mashgichim, are responsive to Mashgiach questions, and develop positive, mutually respectful, and constructive relationships with owners, staff, and Mashgichim.  They set up systems so hashgachah functions properly, communicate those plans to the relevant parties, and know how to respond when things don’t work out as planned.

The Mashgiach is the one who deals with day-to-day hashgachah at each location.  The quality of Mashgichim is one of the critical differences between those hashgachos which are first-rate and those that aren’t.  [Kashrus professionals surveyed stressed this point more than any of the others noted in this article].  They must have yiras Shomayim, be conscientious, knowledgeable, and well trained.  It is the responsibility of the Administration of the hashgachah to (a) find and retain qualified Mashgichim, and this includes ensuring that they are properly compensated, and (b) and  make sure that there are enough Mashgichim to provide proper coverage.

The Mashgiach must have clarity of what is expected of him, and he should be reporting to the RC and/or yotzeh v’nichnas.  He must also be familiar with the equipment used, the menus, and the ebb and flow of business, so that he can properly do his job.  It must be clear to the owner and kitchen staff that the Mashgiach controls anything related to kashrus; not only can he restrict which ingredients etc. are used, but he is allowed access to everything related to food.  Nowadays, at better hashgachos that also means that he (a) and potentially the RC as well) has login information for the location’s cameras (and their recordings), and (b) is the only one with keys to the facility (even if the owner is shomer Shabbos).

 

—We should be proud that many of the local Va’adim servicing communities across the United States meet the expectations outlined in this article, and consumers looking for a top-notch hashgachah should insist that they meet these criteria.