A Doughnut Shop's Change Leaves a Hole

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2007

For almost a decade, the Dunkin' Donuts in the Cabin John Shopping Center helped Clifford Snapper be a better Jew.

Every weekday morning, between stopping for prayers at his Potomac synagogue and heading to his job as a research physician in Bethesda, Snapper would stake out a table with his cup of coffee, doughnut and Torah.

"I'd do a lot of Jewish study there every morning," Snapper said. "You had your privacy and some comfort food. For the Orthodox community in Potomac, it was really the only place you could sit down and eat something kosher locally."

Now Snapper does his morning religious reading at his kitchen table. And the other yarmulke-wearing regulars at the shop have largely dispersed as well.

When that Dunkin' Donuts and another in Montgomery County gave up their kosher status in February to make way for sausage bagels and other breakfast sandwiches, members of the Orthodox Jewish community lost more than just a sanctioned place for a morning nosh, they say: They lost one of the few places where strictly observant Jews in the neighborhood could participate in the chain-store culture that surrounds them.

"People liked having access to a national chain, which is unusual in the kosher community," said Rabbi Binyamin Sanders of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington, which oversees kosher certifications in the area. "You can't go to Wendy's, you can't go to McDonald's. It was an extra comfort in life -- a chance to get access to the other world."

"And their coffee is quite good," he said.

All of which may explain why the simple removal of kosher certificates from two franchise doughnut shops erupted as a controversy that has resonated for weeks in the Orthodox neighborhoods of Montgomery.

Soon after the owner of the stores announced that he would begin selling the nonkosher items, an Internet petition surfaced, and Dunkin' Donuts corporate offices in Massachusetts reported being bombarded with angry e-mails and message-board comments.

In addition to the Cabin John location, the Dunkin' Donuts in Rockville's Metro Pike Plaza lost its kosher status last month after beginning to serve the meat sandwiches. A third kosher location, on Darnestown Road in Gaithersburg, will begin carrying nonkosher items later this year.

The owner of those franchises, Jim Willard, has two other stores that have kept their kosher status -- one on Veirs Mill Road and the other in Rockville's Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.

Willard, who is not Jewish, enjoys deep appreciation in the Orthodox community for his years-long willingness to acquire and maintain kosher status for the stores, which requires days of deep cleaning, strict compliance to Jewish food law and multiple rabbinic inspections every week. To comport with the rule that kosher food be cooked only by Jews, Willard made sure that only a rabbi lighted the pilot flame of his doughnut fryers.

"Mr. Willard has been absolutely fabulous and conscientious in making sure that all rules have been kept," Sanders said.

It was originally reported in local Jewish media and discussion boards that Willard was being forced to adopt the nonkosher menu items by Dunkin' Donuts corporate management. The company subsequently released a statement saying the move had been "a business decision made amicably between franchisee and franchisor."

Willard would not comment.

According to a corporate spokesman, there are 30 to 40 kosher Dunkin' Donuts in the country, and the company decides their status on a case-by-case basis.

Many in the local Orthodox community remain unhappy with the decision.

"There has been just tremendous disappointment," said Alan Reinitz, executive director of Potomac's Beth Shalom Synagogue. The familiar orange-and-pink boxes of doughnuts were a fixture at congregation gatherings, he said, particularly at birthday parties in the Early Childhood Development Center. And the store itself was a favorite meeting spot.

"When I went in there, inevitably I would know five or six people from the congregation," Reinitz said. "Our options are very limited. I don't know where they are going now."

For the most strictly observant, such as Snapper, the only convenient option after rabbis declared the shop doughnuta non grata was to stay home with their own coffee.

Although there are plenty of overtures to Jewish clientele in the shopping center -- the Giant features a "Passover Superstore" on Aisle 16 and the Berman Hebrew Academy's coming production of "Fiddler on the Roof" is billed in several windows -- none of the other eating establishments is 100 percent kosher.

"You can go in and order a cup of coffee and walk away, but generally speaking, an Orthodox Jew won't want to be seen sitting in a place that serves nonkosher food," Snapper said.

The Dunkin' Donuts, on the other hand, served as a gathering point for Jews seeking warm doughnuts and robust conversation. On Sundays, Snapper said, it was common to see groups of chavrusos, or learning companions, sipping, dunking and arguing religious points.

Snapper said he is keeping his change of routine in perspective even as he continues to regret the disappearance of national kosher outlets in the area.

"Okay, in the history of the Jewish people, the loss of a Dunkin' Donuts is a minor problem," he said. "But people felt this was something pleasant, a place to gather. We have lost something."

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