A significant trial is set to begin this week in a religious court here pitting a leading kosher restaurant entrepreneur, Joey Allaham of Prime Grill fame, against a venerable Modern Orthodox synagogue, Lincoln Square Synagogue, from Manhattan’s West Side.
The stakes are high, not only in dollars but in reputation. And rather than a three-man bet din, as is the custom, the case will be heard by only one rabbi — Hershel Schachter, a prominent Orthodox authority.
The synagogue claims Allaham, who is its exclusive caterer, owes $1.8 million in unpaid rental fees. Allaham maintains that long delays in the construction of Lincoln Square, completed in 2013, cost him vital business.
Another interested party in this case is the Orthodox Union, the largest and most trusted kosher certifier in the world, which gives its hechsher (stamp of approval) to Allaham’s posh restaurants. It grants him that coveted seal even as critics claim that he owes money all over town, operates unethically and has been involved in a numerous lawsuits. Allaham denies any unethical behavior and claims his conduct, in each instance, was justified.
And then there is the shadow of the Beth Din of America — the gold standard of religious courts in this country — hanging over the case after Allaham rejected its adjudicating the matter and called for a little-known Brooklyn beit din in his legal fight with Lincoln Square. Taken together, the parties in the dispute — both direct and indirect — represent a confluence of powerful communal and commercial interests. And the case brings into sharp relief the delicate dance — a little pressure here, a little leverage there — that takes place when those interests collide.
Allaham insists he will retain OU certification regardless of the outcome. Rabbi Menachem Genack, who heads the OU’s kashrut division, makes the point that trustworthiness is the key ingredient to kashrut supervision. “The credibility of the people we’re dealing with” is “part of what every supervision is about.”
The Prime Grill restaurant in the atrium of the Sony building on East 57th Street. Michael Datikash/JW
In fact, the OU has set a precedent for withdrawing certification for matters that do not deal solely with kashrut. Sources close to the organization confirmed that it has decertified business owners in the past for crimes involving theft and fraud. In a case that garnered national headlines, the OU stripped its certification from Sholom Rubashkin, former CEO of Agriprocessors, the now-bankrupt kosher slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa, in 2008, after the company was charged with thousands of counts of child labor violations, according to multiple press reports. Other cases, from enforcing a modest dress code for waitresses to stipulating that dance music not be played while wine is served, have given major kashrut organizations reason to threaten to pull their approval.
In the case of Allaham and Lincoln Square, it is most likely, say observers, that Rabbi Schachter will seek a compromise. But if he rules against Allaham, would the OU pull its certification? Such a move would potentially be a serious blow to Allaham’s fortunes. It would represent a fall from grace for the golden-boy restaurateur who came here from Syria in the 1990s knowing almost no English and with few connections, and within a few short years transformed the world of kosher cuisine.
On the ground floor of the towering Sony building in Midtown Manhattan, men in well-tailored suits begin to cluster around noontime, checking their watches and waiting for their parties to arrive. Some wear kippot, others do not. There is no exterior indication that the restaurant is Glatt kosher — those who know don’t have to ask. Lunch over a Chimichurri-marinated hanger steak, made from kosher-certified Angus Beef, or miso-glazed Chilean sea bass, could be the perfect thing to ease a business deal or cement a new contact.
Though the quality of elegant ambiance can be hard to come by in kosher dining, Allaham changed the game when he opened The Prime Grill restaurant in the boom year of 2000. Here was an upscale kosher steakhouse — and the cuts of aged beef were succulent. The salting and soaking requirements of Jewish law that render meat kosher are generally hell on a cut of prime beef, but Allaham found a way to do it beautifully, in a classy setting, many agreed. Allaham hails from a family of kosher butchers from Syria; even his name means butcher in Arabic.
“I have a passion for meat,” said Allaham, who described learning the trade from his grandfather in Syria. As a boy, he would help his grandfather pick out live cattle from the marketplace. “It’s not something you can learn in school. You learn from watching.”
(Allaham agreed to a sit-down interview after first canceling a scheduled in-person meeting for this story, saying he would answer questions only by email. In the end, the interview, which had been scheduled to take place at The Jewish Week, took place at the Midtown office of his lawyer, who was present.)
Shortly after arriving in America in 1994 with his mother, Allaham landed a job as a stock boy at a mini-mart in Brooklyn. From there, he worked his way up to head butcher, and eventually raised funds from investors and opened his own restaurant, the first Prime Grill, on East 49th Street. He was still in his 20s.
Soon after Prime Grill opened, word got out. New Yorkers of a certain status like their steakhouses. A-list celebs from Bono to Madonna began frequenting the restaurant. Bill de Blasio and Bill Clinton stopped in for a bite. Allaham’s star was soaring. He followed up Prime Grill with Prime KO (now Prime West), Prime at the Bentley and Pizza da Solo; Prime West, located on the Upper West Side, serves French cuisine, including lamb ribs braised for 48 hours. Solo, in the cavernous Sony atrium, serves up handmade pies and authentic Italian fare. Then, in a move that garnered publicity, he opened a sleek, high-end butcher shop in the East 80s just two blocks from the long-standing Park East Kosher Butchers.
But Allaham’s rise to culinary stardom hasn’t been without pitfalls. In the past, Allaham has faced a number of lawsuits, charging everything from stolen tips to defaulting on investor payments. The OU has been made aware of some of the allegations, sources close to the organization’s kashrut bureau confirm, and for now it is standing by Allaham, who denies all allegations against him.
“I cannot comment on unsubstantiated allegations,” Allaham wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday. “As a businessman and an observant Jew, I pride myself on conducting all of my operations in a professional manner. As with any business, there have been times when certain payments have been made late due to circumstances beyond my control. And as with any business I have come across various disputes and disagreements from time to time.
“However,” he continued, “to my knowledge all my accounts are current.” Noting that he has more than 500 employees, he encouraged anyone with claims against him to deal with him directly.
“If the OU leaves because it considers a restaurant unreliable, most other reputable certifiers will be wary,” said Timothy Lytton, a kashrut-industry expert, author and law professor. “The weaker the reliability of the certification, the weaker the customer base.”
“Neemanut,” the Hebrew term for trustworthiness, lies at the core of the kashrut industry’s business model, he said. “When the OU supervises a restaurant, it has to be thinking about the trustworthiness of the person in charge. From a religious ethical point of view, that’s because it’s their job to protect the public. From a business point of view, an unreliable restaurateur will reflect poorly on the reliability of the supervision.”
While the OU has pulled certification from a handful of business owners due to fraudulent activities, the mainstream kashrut industry still has a major problem when it comes to enforcing ethical standards, according to Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox social justice movement.
“Kashrut authorities in America today make it clear that they have no interest in policing the ethical dimension of the industry,” said Rabbi Yanklowitz, who has spoken on behalf of workers’ rights and unjust treatment of animals. He maintains that ethical practices and the kosher status of food are “completely intertwined,” despite attempts by major certifiers to separate the two, “for the sake of business.”
The Last Tenant Standing
Currently, Allaham is in a turf battle with the Sony Building, where Prime Grill moved in the summer of 2015 from 25 W. 56th St. Pizza da Solo, Allaham’s kosher pizzeria, moved into the building several years earlier; the two restaurants now split the space.
Pizza da Solo is Joey Allaham’s fancy pizza eatery adjacent to the Prime Grill. Michael Datikash/JW
Troubles began shortly after Sony sold the tower for $1.1 billion to Joseph Chetrit and business partner David Bistricer in March 2013. Now, the new owners want Allaham out, presumably to use the space for other interests, but Allaham wants to keep his lease, which he says lasts until at least 2029. Sony, Allaham’s landlord, filed suit against him in 2013 for alleged lease violations, including generating too much garbage in the atrium, where the two restaurants are housed. The slow-grinding court battle is ongoing; Allaham has denied the allegations and claims Sony is fronting for Chetrit.
Come spring, Prime Grill and Pizza da Solo will be the only tenants left standing in the table-lined atrium of the building connecting East 55th and East 56th streets, said Valentino-Puiu Lulea, general manager at Prime Grill.
The move to the Sony building is Prime Grill’s third relocation since launching in 2000. Allaham was involved in a lawsuit over Prime Grill leaving the E. 49th Street location, resulting in a settlement that alleged he had owed more than $850,000 in unpaid rent. Prime Grill was evicted from the second location, on W. 56th Street, in August 2015.
According to Allaham, he tried unsuccessfully to surrender the keys and the lease to the landlord of 25 W. 56th before the eviction notice was posted. He decided to surrender the lease because the Sony building, where he had opened Pizza da Solo, did not want him to operate a competing restaurant within a two-block radius.
A source close to Allaham said the restaurateur is “desperate” to receive a big payout from Chetrit in exchange for abandoning the Sony lease, though the source said such a payout is not likely. Though Allaham did not directly address this claim, he maintains that his financial position is solid.
“Chetrit will build up around Joey if he has to,” the source said, speaking to The Jewish Week anonymously for fear of retribution. The source claims Allaham still owes him a significant amount of money.
Chetrit has not responded to requests for comment.
Landlords aren’t the only ones pushing for payback. Allaham, who ran three luxury Passover programs in Aspen, Colo., Puerto Rico and Dana Point, Calif., last spring, is still battling legal fallout from the experience. American Express Centurion Bank filed a $1.3 million suit in state Supreme Court here against Allaham on Dec. 23. Though the case was dismissed on Feb. 4, an examination of Allaham’s credit card bill, filed by American Express as an exhibit to its complaint, shows that Allaham accrued several hundred thousand dollars in debt over the course of three days to pay for the 2015 Passover programs. When he tried to pay off that debt, American Express alleged, his checks bounced several times.
The lawyer representing American Express did not return requests for comment.
According to Allaham, the American Express suit was caused by 400 dissatisfied Passover guests who abruptly reversed their charges after the holiday getaway failed to live up to guests’ expectations and its contractual obligations. He blames the high-price hotel and its employees, whom he says sabotaged his operation. Several incidents, including bread being served at Passover meals — an infringement of the highest order according to Orthodox law — left customers enraged.
Allaham is currently suing Vieques Hotel Partners, owner of the W Retreat and Spa in Puerto Rico, which he claims is responsible for the Passover fiasco. According to his complaint, the hotel staff carried out “numerous repugnant and indefensible acts of hostility, bias, malice, discrimination, anti-Semitism … vandalism and theft” towards his staff and guests.
The W Retreat and Spa did not respond to request for comment.
This year Allaham has downscaled his Pesach programming somewhat. None of the three hotels from 2015 was renewed. This year, Allaham’s “Prime Pesach” is set to take place at the Fairmont in Santa Monica, Calif. All 302 rooms in the hotel’s three towers (10 floors per tower) have been booked in advance for the week of Passover. Allaham is charging up to $9,500 per person, according to the program’s website; last year prices reached $11,000 per person, according to online price listings for the program.
Similar to his past Passover programs, a star-studded cast of rabbis, lecturers and Jewish entertainers are expected to fill the schedule this year. But some former employees of those Passover programs describe less than satisfactory experiences dealing with Allaham.
Rabbi Mendel Mintz, executive director of the Chabad Community Center in Aspen Valley, said he was recruited by Allaham to help with the kosher certification, or hashgacha, of his 2015 Passover program in Aspen. Rabbi Mintz said he spent “months” answering questions from hotel staff and guests, and personally recruiting eight mashgichim to oversee kashrut operations at the hotel. They were to be paid a total of $16,000, or $2,000 a person.
The rabbi’s first “red flag” was when Allaham asked him to pay out of pocket for the plane tickets of the eight mashgichim. “It was strange that Joey would ask me — his employee — to lay out the money when he hadn’t even paid me yet,” Rabbi Mintz told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “But I decided not to make much of it at the time.”
A week before Passover, Rabbi Mintz asked Allaham about the money. Allaham assured him the check was in the mail. No check ever arrived, according to the rabbi.
What followed was a months-long email and phone exchange in which Rabbi Mintz continued to request the money and Allaham promised the money would be sent, to no avail. When the check for $8,000 finally arrived, it bounced — twice. “More emails, more checks — checks bounced, repeat,” said Rabbi Mintz. The money has since been paid in full, according to the rabbi.
Allaham denied allegations of non-payment. He said he paid the rabbi shorty after the Passover holiday.
Mendel Zirkind, a private chef and mashgiach hired by Allaham to help prepare food for the 2015 Passover programs, said he was never paid for his six weeks of work, during which he averaged 70 hours a week.
“The way Joey runs his operations is he makes you come and beg for the money. If you don’t run after your money, you won’t get it,” he said. Zirkind described the work-intensive cooking methods he used to prepare the meat, including sous-vide, a method in which food is sealed in a plastic bag and submerged in temperature-controlled water for long periods of time — 24 hours or more, in some cases. According to Zirkind, Allaham still owes him $7,500 for the work. To date, he has received two checks from Allaham — both bounced, he said.
According to Allaham, Zirkind was caught on camera stealing large amounts of meat from the kitchen in Lincoln Square, where preparations for the program were underway. Allaham produced what he said was photo evidence taken from security cameras showing a bearded man, allegedly Zirkind, moving large boxes in and out of the building.
Zirkind denies the claims. “I’m a single guy, I live alone,” he said. “What exactly would I do with $20,000 worth of meat?”
Allaham asserts that Zirkind sold the meat for personal gain.
A number of vendors, suppliers and former employees of Allaham interviewed for this article claim Allaham still owes him or her money, in amounts ranging from a few thousand to $80,000. Many have requested to remain anonymous in the hopes that Allaham will still pay them back.
“I’ve waited to be paid back for so many years, I just can’t risk losing everything now,” said one independent contractor, after describing his “troubles” with Allaham over the past several years. According to the contractor, the restaurateur owes him up to $80,000. After months of calling and many bounced checks, Allaham has finally set up a functional, albeit dilatory, payment plan, he said. (A source with knowledge of the disputes says Allaham has sought to settle old financial scores in advance of the publication of this article.)
Trouble At The Airport
In October 2014, caterer and restaurateur David Pearlman, 34, says he spent six weeks creating an intricate menu for a Sukkot hotel program that would take place that year in Orlando, Fla. The program was one of Allaham’s first forays into the world of luxury, all-inclusive kosher holiday retreats.
Pearlman said his long days of preparation for the program entailed ordering everything from salt to tuna tartar, arranging truck deliveries, and making sure the destination kitchen was prepared for a strictly kosher clientele. After six weeks, he headed down to Orlando three days before the program’s start date to set up shop; his wife and three young children planned to join him there for the holiday.
At the airport, he met with Allaham and his crew. According to Pearlman and another former employee of Allaham’s who witnessed the scene, Allaham, who had just experienced a baggage mishap, screamed at Pearlman to get on a flight and go back home. Pearlman tried to protest but quickly realized it was futile.
“They were all so terrified of him [Allaham] that they just turned their heads and looked away,” he told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “No one questioned him. No one stood up for me. No one said anything.”
Shaken by the experience, he booked a flight home and scrambled together last-minute holiday plans.
Shortly thereafter, Pearlman sent Allaham an invoice for $5,000. He received no response. He e-mailed Allaham’s director of operations (this individual no longer works for Allaham). “I don’t think he plans on paying you,” the director emailed back, claimed Pearlman.
“I started to hear from people who used to work for Joey. They all said the same thing. ‘This is his M.O. — don’t expect to get paid,’” said Pearlman.
His next step was to reach out to the Orthodox Union, which he knew certified Allaham’s operations. Pearlman said he contacted a kashrut representative at the OU, who advised him to take his case to the Beit Din of America. Rabbi Genack, the CEO of OU’s kashrut division, confirmed that Pearlman reached out to the organization and was advised to bring his case before the Orthodox high court.
“He [Genack] told me anything the Beit Din of America decided, the OU would uphold,” said Pearlman. He described the threat of removing Allaham’s valuable kosher seal of approval as his only “leverage.”
In June 2015, Pearlman brought Allaham before a religious court of three judges at the BDA religious court. The BDA ruled in favor of Pearlman. In November, the court sent a letter documenting the decision to Pearlman and Allaham, demanding Allaham pay the $5,000 in full.
Allaham told The Jewish Week he mailed the payment in full to Pearlman during the first week of March. He said he told Pearlman to cancel his flight to Orlando while he was still in New York. He also claimed Pearlman intentionally canceled the flights of 20 other employees, causing Allaham significant financial losses.
A Synagogue Caught In Middle
In 2012, Lincoln Square Synagogue, a fixture on the Upper West Side since the 1960s, began seeking a high-quality kosher caterer to take up operations in its newly constructed social hall. The Modern Orthodox synagogue was nearing the end of its $50 million construction project, a new, state-of-the-art 50,000-square-foot facility at 180 Amsterdam Ave. Though originally the project was expected to take only two years, financial setbacks, exacerbated by the market collapse in 2008, set the project back four years and left the synagogue scrambling for funds.
Lincoln Square Synagogue. The shul’s catering hall, operated by Allaham, is under dispute. Michael Datikash/JW
In an effort to raise revenue, the synagogue struck up a deal with Allaham in November of 2012. Prime Grill would be the exclusive caterer for all events that took place in the new building, and Allaham would pay a monthly fee of $20,883, all utility fees, and be responsible for renovating the new ballroom, according to court papers — an undertaking projected to cost $1.5 million. The agreement also provided that any dispute between Prime Grill and the synagogue would be arbitrated before the Beit Din of America. According to the synagogue, Allaham defaulted on every one of these agreements. Allaham claims that construction delays cost him business.
Lincoln Square wants the case resolved quickly because it cannot rent the ballroom to other vendors until the contract with Allaham is legally terminated, said a synagogue representative. Currently, if another party wants to use the ballroom for an event, Prime Grill is paid for the time, said the representative.
The synagogue decided to take the case before the Beit Din of America in August 2015. According to court documents, Allaham agreed to have the case arbitrated before the religious court, and his lawyer sent several emails to arrange a date. During the case proceedings, the OU reinforced the BDA’s court summons, and threatened to remove Allaham’s certification if he did not comply, according to a source close to the situation.
Unlike many ad hoc beit dins that operate around New York City, the BDA is committed to regulations, rules and procedures, said Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, its director. “We are committed to the highest standards of transparency and protocol,” said the rabbi, who is a licensed attorney.
But after agreeing to bring the case before the BDA, Allaham reneged, claiming that Rabbi Shaul Robinson, Lincoln Square’s rabbi, presents a conflict of interest because he is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization that is affiliated with the BDA. The synagogue alleges that this action was “a blatant attempt at forum shopping.”
Though he declined to comment on the Lincoln Square case, Rabbi Weissmann said that the court has a specific mechanism for objecting to an arbitrator who has any conflict of interest. “We are careful to staff a case only with individuals who have no prior relationship to either party,” he said. In the case that the judges do have some prior relationship, the information is disclosed at the start of the hearing. “Our goal is complete transparency,” he said.
According to Lincoln Square, Allaham said he wanted to appear before a different bit din, the Beth Din of the Central Rabbinical Congress in Brooklyn. (In a Google search, no information about this alternative beit din comes up.) When Lincoln Square resisted, Allaham took his case to civil court instead.
The OU’s Rabbi Genack confirmed that Allaham’s refusal to appear before the BDA, or another approved arbiter, could compromise his supervision. However, the current agreement to appear before Rabbi Schachter protects Allaham from this possibility. The rabbi’s ruling, which will likely inform OU’s actions about Prime Grill’s kosher seal of approval, will be legally binding in civil court, according to Rabbi Genack.
For his part, Joey Allaham insists his ties with the OU are unshakable. And he denies any unethical conduct that would put his certification in jeopardy. The OU’s seal is not an endorsement he is willing to lose. “We’ve always had OU certification,” he said. “We won’t lose the certification, whatever the outcome in beit din.”
This article was made possible with funding from The Jewish Week Investigative Journalism Fund.