Budapest’s only kosher fast food restaurant eagerly awaits return of Israeli tourists

BUDAPEST (JTA) – The two main kosher restaurants in this city have enjoyed an excellent reputation for years.

Carmel and Hanna both offer iconic local dishes like nokedli goulash, a paprika-rich beef stew made from hand-made noodle balls; Hungarian cutlets; and flodni – a Judeo-Hungarian layer cake rich in poppy and nuts. It’s next to Israeli dishes, like shish kebab and hummus.

But neither restaurant is particularly inexpensive, and both require a longer sit-down dining experience. And it looked like a business opportunity for László Györfi.

For example, Györfi, 51, recently opened a much cheaper, no-frills burger shop which he says is the only kosher fast-food restaurant in the Hungarian capital. It’s just around the corner from its competition, in the 7th district, the hub of Budapest’s nightlife.

“Hannah and Carmel are great restaurants, great service, lots of space,” he said. “But often Israeli families just want a place where they can get a burger and fries or a hot dog for their four children for a fraction of the cost and time. That’s what Kosher meat is there for.

In 2019, at least 144,000 Israeli tourists visited Hungary, the fourth highest number of visitors from non-European countries. This is also a 10% increase from the 2018 tally, demonstrating Hungary’s growing attraction to Israeli travelers.

(These statistics provided by the Hungarian government are also likely to be significantly inferior to reality, as they are based only on Israelis who entered Hungary specifically with an Israeli passport.)

At Kosher MeatUp, customers are not spoiled for choice. For the main course, the options are a burger, shawarma, or breaded chicken breast. The sides are soup, fries or salad.

But even though Kosher MeatUp’s business model is optimal, its timing has been unfortunate. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the restaurant’s brief attempt to launch last year and wiped out its intended source of income overnight, as Hungary and Israel shut down tourist air travel.

Tourism in Hungary has picked up in recent months, but traffic is only a trickle compared to 2019 levels. MeatUp’s reopening has therefore been slow.

“We close at 8 p.m. because staying open beyond that hour only loses money,” Györfi said with frustration, noting that fast food outlets like his normally enjoy an evening peak in the evening. the 7th arrondissement. “Business is slow” during the day too for the restaurant’s three employees and his full-time mashgiach, or the hired rabbi whose job it is to make sure the restaurant follows kosher rules.

But Györfi, a father of three who also owns a thriving kosher bakery outside the center called Semes, says he has “faith in the business model” and is determined to “give it a chance”. For now, he’s prepared to lose some of his margin from Semes – which sells to locals and Jewish institutions, including schools and nurseries – to keep the lights on at MeatUp.

László Györfi sits inside Kosher MeatUp on August 29, 2021 (Cnaan Liphshiz)

On a recent slow weekday, the staff at MeatUp, young members of the Jewish community who speak good Hebrew, mostly chatted with each other and checked their phones. The mashgiah was seated at a separate table hunched over the scriptures. The ten tables in the restaurant were clean and empty. Sometimes Györfi, a tall man with a deep voice, sits down at one to go through paperwork while wearing his trademark Ascot cap.

For him, kosher food in Budapest “is a business, but it is also a mission”.

“When I was younger there was hardly any kosher food industry, let alone fancy restaurants. So we are building, ”he said.

Many Jewish residents feel this about most aspects of Hungarian Jewish community life, which the Nazis almost wiped out entirely, and which the Communists of the Soviet Union then forced underground for decades. The reopening of MeatUp coincided with a series of festive Jewish community events in August and September, including the opening of three new synagogues, a Jewish community center on the banks of the Danube and a new building at the local Jewish hospital.

This is part of a greater surge of renewal that has lasted for about a decade, amid growing tensions and rivalries between Jewish groups – sometimes over resources, sometimes over the policies of the right-wing Hungarian government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Györfi has unlikely cheerleaders at Carmel, his main competitor, which sells high-end burgers and Israeli-style meats alongside his iconic Hungarian dishes at a 100-seat cellar near the famous Dohnay Street Synagogue. .

“We don’t know what kind of impact MeatUp might have on Carmel, but I’m still glad there’s a new kosher restaurant,” said Dániel Preiszler, a 34-year-old businessman who, with a partner, owns the company that runs Carmel and its kosher dairy restaurant across the street, Tel Aviv Cafe.

Like Györfi, Preiszler also believes MeatUp is aimed at a different demographic than Carmel. There is also business logic in welcoming competitors, he said, because the more options observer travelers have, the more likely their total numbers will increase.

“But I don’t know, maybe we’ll lose hundreds of dollars a day,” he added. “The availability of kosher food is a basic requirement that we don’t take for granted here. So it means something every time it is reinforced.

Györfi has plans for a follow-up project: a cafe with its own pastry shop that would offer kosher variations of the world-famous confectionery traditions of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, like the Sachertorte chocolate cream cake and the Gesztenye chestnut. Torta cake.

For now, MeatUp still relies on Israeli tourists.

“The food is good,” one of them, Tomer Ashri, 22, told the Jewish Telegraph Agency. He was there with a traveling companion.

“It’s no wonder, but it’s a little cheaper than what it would cost in Tel Aviv,” he said. “It’s really better to buy veg at the supermarket, which is kind of what we expected for food here before hearing about this place.”

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