App aims to keep things kosher, in Israel and abroad

With ‘What’s Kosher,’ users get the lowdown on what to eat and where – and even who the kashrut supervisor is

Screenshots of the What's Kosher app (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Screenshots of the What's Kosher app (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Observant Jews who want to eat out are often stymied. You know there’s a kosher restaurant around here somewhere, but where? Unfortunately, there hasn’t been an Israeli app with comprehensive guide to kosher establishments – until now. The “What’s Kosher” (Ma Kasher) app is in its beginning stages, starting out in only Israel and in Hebrew, but it aims to be the go-to world guide for those looking for kosher restaurants, cafes, fast-food places, markets – and even fruit and vegetable vendors that will supply them with produce up to their standards of kashrut, an especially important issue this year.

What’s Kosher has been downloaded over 10,000 times in its first four months on the market, said Nissim Edry, CEO of Afik Pirsum, the company behind the app.  Most of the downloads are in Israel, because the app is only available in Hebrew in the Israeli App Store.

That could change in the coming weeks, as the company has petitioned Apple to include What’s Kosher in other App Stores in the US and Europe. It’s also accessible for Android users around the world on Google Play, and word is getting out to visitors and tourists, who, Edry said, have been downloading the app for use when they visit Israel. “We are also working on foreign language versions, including English, French and Spanish, so users who don’t know Hebrew will be able to benefit.” The app team is building up a database of kosher restaurants in the US and Europe, which will be included in the Hebrew version of What’s Kosher, for traveling Israelis seeking a kosher meal.

What’s Kosher works like a dozen other similar restaurant navigation apps. Using a smartphone’s geolocation services, the app shows you your location on a map and lists the kosher establishments in the area, classified by type of cuisine, price, menu (dairy or meat), level of kashrut — “regular” or glatt kosher/mehadrin, with certain extra strictures on the type of food served. Once a user finds a place they’re interested in, they can get directions via Waze or Google Maps. A click of a button opens up the navigation app and shows driving and/or walking directions, and there are also links to phone numbers, websites, reservation systems, and on-line menus.

For those who keep kosher, the big advantage of What’s Kosher over other restaurant information and navigation apps is that their most important criterion is automatically “covered” by the app. Other apps also list kosher restaurants, but users have to either wade through the listings of the non-kosher places to find the ones they can use, or do a special search that is not always accurate. Often non-kosher places sneak into up on the kosher list because of glitches, incomplete information on the level of kashrut, and other problems.

Indeed, accuracy is especially essential in an app like this. No one wants to invest time into searching for and traveling to a place that, in the end, turns out not to be kosher. Edry said that the team does its best to stay on top of the “kosher news,” adding and dropping establishments as they come under or leave rabbinical supervision. “In Israel, we work with the religious councils in all cities and local authorities, who update us on a regular basis on the establishment under their supervision and the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate,” said Edry. “We also include restaurants under private haredi supervision which are approved by the Rabbinate.”

Abroad, where kashrut matters are less organized, the team is working with kashrut supervision organizations like the Orthodox Union, and local rabbinical councils, for information on what to list. “Because the food business is so fluid, with places opening and closing all the time, it’s very difficult to be sure that you have all the listings,” said Edry. “But in Israel, we think we have 85% of all the kosher places in our database, and we are aiming to get as close as possible to 100%, both in Israel and abroad.”

Perhaps the most innovative – and certainly unique – component of What’s Kosher is a feature that is especially relevant this year, during the “shmita” year, when Jewish farmers are supposed to let their lands lay fallow. Fruits and vegetables that grow during the shmita year are imbued with a higher level of holiness than in other years, and there are restrictions on how they can be bought and sold, how they can be cooked, and how leftovers can be disposed of.

There are several approaches on carrying out the laws of shmita, and the app aims to satisfy all of them, said Edry. “In the produce section you can see the type of approach each store uses, whether ‘heter hamechira’ (the standard used by the Rabbinate) to ‘otzar Beit Din’ (popular among many religious Zionists) to Badatz (the ultra-Orthodox standard). People have told us that this feature alone has made their lives much easier, because we did the research for them on where they can buy produce.”

And for those who don’t trust an app, a kashrut certificate, or anything less than a conversation with the supervising rabbi – the better to grill him on how seriously he takes his job – What’s Kosher is there, too, supplying the name and phone number of the supervisors for most of the restaurants. “This, too, is very unique. I don’t think there has been a comprehensive database of supervising rabbis available to the general public until now,” said Edry.

Israelis love to eat out, whether they keep kosher or not, and Edry is optimistic about the app’s chance for financial success. There’s no charge to download or use the app — Edry plans to make money by offering restaurants and shops opportunities to promote themselves, either with banner ads, featured placement, and coupons. So far, the only investors in the app are Edry and members of the team, but he is confident that will change, too. “Based on what people are telling us, the app is extremely helpful, and we expect that millions of kosher-keepers around the world will download it. I am positive that at least one or two of those who download it will be investors with the means to help us – and after they use the app, they will definitely have the desire to invest.”

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