In the summer of 2017, a flier went up on a bulletin board inside the Shalom Kosher grocery store in the Kemp Mill Shopping Center in Silver Spring, Md. Chin & Lee, a Chinese restaurant a few storefronts down, was up for sale. Was anyone interested in buying it?
One of Ami Schreiber’s friends snapped a photo, stuck it on Facebook and tagged Ami, along with a message: “Schreiber, you’ve been talking about this for the better part of two decades.”
It was time for him to put up or shut up.
It was time for Ami, a software engineer, and his wife, Rivka, a financial planner — two people in their 40s with zero experience in running a restaurant — to buy a restaurant.
“Every day, we get up and shake our heads and say this is not a normal thing,” Ami told me last week, nearly a year after the Schreibers opened their carryout restaurant. It’s called Holy Chow, and it serves kosher Chinese food.
Ami’s friends in the Orthodox community of Kemp Mill were accustomed to him reminiscing about the kosher restaurants in New Jersey, where he grew up, including his favorite: Chopstix, a Chinese restaurant in Teaneck. The shopping center near his Silver Spring house boasts a kosher pizza parlor, a kosher bakery, a kosher candy store and that kosher supermarket, but no Chinese. Would it support one?
“I’m a data person,” Ami said. “My wife’s a numbers person. Together we started plotting things out.”
They scrutinized demographic information. They surveyed their friends. They estimated what it would cost to buy equipment and supplies. Then, to be safe, they doubled those estimates.
“It just kept making sense,” Ami said. “The demographic here, in terms of a high concentration of Jewish people that keep kosher, is too much to ignore.”
For advice, Ami consulted Uri Herzog, one of the owners of Chopstix, the beloved restaurant from his youth. Herzog came in as a part-owner.
The Schreibers were confident they’d find an audience for kosher Chinese food — so confident they took out a home-equity loan — but they knew they couldn’t be the ones doing the actual cooking. Kosher, they know. Chinese, not so much.
They advertised in Chinese-language papers for a head chef and, after a few false starts, brought David Sun aboard. He’s been a chef for nearly 40 years — most recently at Oriental East in Silver Spring — but had never cooked kosher food before.
“For them, really the only difference is they’re not doing pork or shellfish,” Ami said of David and his Chinese sous chefs. “They don’t have to tweak anything other than that. We provide them with ingredients, then say, ‘Cook for us.’ ”
It’s a bit more complicated than that. There are no oysters in the oyster sauce. There’s no MSG in anything, but that’s an Ami thing (he’s allergic), not a Jewish one. And because one of the Schreibers’ three kids is allergic to nuts, peanuts are quarantined in one corner of the kitchen and only one of the three large woks is used to make kung pao chicken.
The real work comes pre-wok. All the ingredients are under the supervision of a mashgiach, or overseer, who is on site and inspects all deliveries. On the day I visited Holy Chow, that was Zvi Goldman, who works for the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington.
In addition to pork and shellfish, the Torah expressly forbids the consumption of anything that swarms. That means insects. And that means that broccoli — prone to thrips — is a pain in the neck. Holy Chow uses frozen imported kosher broccoli. The chicken and beef come from kosher butchers in Baltimore and New York and cost three times as much as non-kosher meats, Ami said.
“The old restaurant used to do $6 lunch specials,” he said. “We can’t stay in business at $6 lunch.”
Lunch is now $12, dinner entrees around $20.
The price seems not to have cost Holy Chow many customers. Christmas was huge for them. So, too, are Fridays, when Orthodox Jews are getting ready for the sabbath — and Holy Chow closes early.
“People buy in advance,” Ami said. “They’re buying food for Friday night and Saturday.”
Orthodox households aren’t allowed to cook on the sabbath, operate machinery or turn on anything that uses electricity. Households that are strictly kosher often put a hot plate or a crockpot on a timer that they set before Shabbat, then ask Holy Chow to put their meals in metal containers that can be reheated automatically.
“We understand how people are going to eat our food,” Ami said.
That’s good. But it’s also a big responsibility.
“You’re going to see all these people in synagogue on Saturday,” Rivka said. “If something’s not right . . . ”
“You’re going to hear about it,” Ami finished.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.