What does it take to get high-quality, tasty, affordable kosher food in Washington, DC? A community-minded college freshman willing to venture into the food truck business with no prior experience.
Carly Meisel is the engine behind Brooklyn Sandwich Company, a glatt kosher food truck that rolled onto the capital’s streets for the first time earlier this month. She aims to serve kashrut-concerned fellow George Washington University students, as well as young professionals working in the city’s central core.
When Meisel, 19, arrived on campus from Newton, Massachusetts, she knew there was no kosher dining hall. What she didn’t know was how few appropriate options there were in the area for kashrut-observant students like herself.
At the university itself, there was as single refrigerator in one of the dining halls with kosher wraps and salads.
“They were so tiny, and they were selling for $13 to $15. That’s ridiculous. And you didn’t know how long they had been sitting in that fridge. There was no way of knowing whether they were fresh,” Meisel told The Times of Israel from Safed, where she is studying this summer.
She did research further afield and identified a couple of kosher dining establishments in the city. One was a deli-style restaurant 15 minutes from campus that too was charging prices higher than what most students could afford.
“It’s the kind of place you go to with your parents when they are in town, but not on your own,” Meisel noted.
She found a small kosher soup bar, and discovered that the JCC of Greater Washington (not near the GW campus) was planning a kosher dairy restaurant. It has yet to open.
She also heard that the local Sixth & I Synagogue has a kosher food truck cleverly called “Sixth & Rye.” But it only popped up occasionally at community events.
So after sitting down last fall in the Jewish Colonials Chabad sukkah with Rabbi Yudi Steiner and some other students to discuss the paucity of kosher options, Meisel set out to find a solution.
‘A lot of people like traditional Jewish food, and the idea was to give it an upscale twist while still keeping it affordable for students and others on a budget’
Alongside the work she did for her classes in Middle East studies and psychology at the university’s Elliott School of International Affairs, she ended up devoting untold hours to what she half-jokingly calls her “college course in food truck start-up.”
Like anyone starting a new business, Meisel conducted market research. She estimated that between 200 and 250 of GW’s approximately 3,000 Jewish students ate only kosher meat and consequently had to resort to eating only vegetarian on campus.
This was a good start for a client base, but Meisel knew that her food business would have to appeal to more than just this limited number of students. Accordingly, she came up with a menu concept aimed at satisfying the palates of a wide variety of customers, regardless of their religious background.
“A lot of people like traditional Jewish food, and the idea was to give it an upscale twist while still keeping it affordable for students and others on a budget,” the young entrepreneur explained.
After months of consulting with food industry professionals (often cold-calling people she found by Googling), Meisel decided that a food truck would be better than opening a brick-and-mortar establishment.
With the support of Rabbi Steiner and Jewish Colonials Chabad, a generous alumnus donor, and the proceeds of a crowdfunding campaign, she went ahead and enlisted the help of DC food tuck consultant Dylan Kough and Brooklyn artisan chef and culinary director Sam Akselrod to flesh out her Brooklyn Sandwich Company concept.
The food truck’s menu is far from extensive, but it reflects a level of culinary sophistication paired with an appreciation for quality ingredients.
“We are aiming for unique dishes packed with flavor,” Meisel explained.
As would be expected, there’s a pastrami sandwich, beef brisket (sandwich or plate), and cholent. Only, the pastrami’s served on a pretzel bun, the brisket is cooked sous vide and pulled, and the cholent is made from portobello mushrooms, sunchokes and barley.
In another nod to tradition, the menu also includes items like matzo ball soup (“Made with TLC, just like your bubbie’s”), knishes and coleslaw. But the latter has chipotle in it, and diners are offered a choice of aolis instead of the usual mustard to top their doughy Jewish potato pockets.
‘I’m not the kind of person to shy away from a challenge, and making delicious kosher food accessible to people is important to me’
Perhaps most important to Meisel and other students, they can have a trendy, tasty and satisfying meal — replete with main dish, side and drink — for a reasonable $15.
The kashrut of the truck, which will be parked two to three days a week on campus and at other spots around downtown DC the rest of the time, is supervised by Rabbi Hillel Baron of of Congregation Ahavas Israel in Columbia, Maryland.
Although Meisel arrived at GW last fall thinking the biggest purchase she’d be making would be textbooks, she isn’t totally surprised at the fact that she ended up buying a food truck, too. She’s an unexpected entrepreneur, but not a reluctant one.
“I’m not the kind of person to shy away from a challenge, and making delicious kosher food accessible to people is important to me. It’s actually important to Judaism,” Meisel said.
She’s especially proud that Brooklyn Sandwich Company is going to be a student-run not-for-profit concern, with she and fellow students handling marketing, accounting and other administrative and managerial tasks. At this point, the only paid employees are non-student culinary staff who prepare and prep the food at a kosher commercial kitchen so that dishes can be made to order and served from the truck.
Meisel has been amazed by all the interest and support the venture has received. She said people had gone out of their way to help her realize her goal. For instance, her economics professor Irene Foster has tutored her on business economics, helping her to determine price points and salaries.
Ultimately, it was Meisel’s initiative and leadership that made it happen.
“While we’ve been talking about solving the kosher food problem at GW for a few years, Carly and her friends’ passion and persistence forced this dream to be actualized. Ultimately this is a huge mitzvah helping the Jewish community keep kosher in a fun and delicious way,” said Steiner.
Amazingly, between supervising the complete renovation of the inside of the vehicle and applying for all the various licenses required for running a food truck business, Meisel still found time to not only keep us with her academics, but also to stay involved in on-campus activities.
The kosher dining entrepreneur serves on the executive boards of GW’s Student Alliance for Israel and the Chabad-associated L’Chaim Jewish Student Group.
‘I sleep. I eat. Somehow I get it all done’
“I sleep. I eat. Somehow I get it all done,” she claimed.
Meisel pointed to three keys to her ability to successfully mutli-task better than many adults twice of three times her age.
“For one, I don’t procrastinate. I also don’t watch TV or movies or waste time on social media,” she offered.
But most of all, it’s her Shabbat observance that she thinks enables her to do it all. Whatever she doesn’t get done by sundown Friday stays unfinished until Saturday night. One day a week, she focuses on her spirituality and on being with her community, driving out all academic and business-related thoughts from her mind.
“I couldn’t do it without Shabbat,” she declared.