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Go Tell Bubbe: Chubby Chickpea Truck Goes Kosher

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Photo: The Chubby Chickpea/Facebook

A recent tweet from The Chubby Chickpea, a Middle Eastern food truck, caught Eater's eye; the Canton-based business will become certified kosher, making it the first truck in Boston to do so. Eater caught up with owner Avi Shemtov to learn more about this decision. Shemtov explained the thoughts behind his choice, how homemade traditional Israeli shawarma will replace bacon cheeseburgers, and his plans to provide the kosher experiences that are currently not available in Boston.

Tell us about deciding to change your business to a kosher operation and when you expect to finish doing so.
We are currently planning to turn both our Canton restaurant and our mostly-in-Boston food truck to glatt kosher [a strict form of keeping kosher] by the end of September. It's going to depend on zoning in Canton as we open a new shop there. I've wanted to have the restaurant be kosher pretty much since the day we opened. A lot of people in the kosher community talk about the idea of being kosher as if the expenses are just too high. But this past year, in wholesaling some of my products to other restaurants, I was speaking to the KVH [a local kosher certification agency] about one of those items. It became a general conversation about fees and it turned out they're not so bad. It won't have any negative impacts on our customer. Some of our expenses are higher, but we've found a way to make it work.

You currently have a bacon cheeseburger on the menu in Canton, so this is clearly a big shift for you.
With the Canton restaurant, it's been a combination of two things. One: concept. A lot of our menu items are concept driven. The concept of Chubby Chickpea since the day I birthed it has been to be really authentically Middle Eastern, but also to be progressively fusion, at the same time — doing some cool new-age things with Middle Eastern food. I think Middle Eastern restaurants, and kosher restaurants in general, really pigeonhole themselves. They make the same set of menu items and become bland and sort of mundane. Our plan has always been to keep things moving.
But second, other items are driven by customer demand. We've found where we are now in Canton, if we don't have some universal items on the menu, we make ourselves a little too niche to survive. Whereas with the food truck, we don't have to have items like that, because you can be more niche in a densely populated area. Of course when we go kosher, we'll have to take anything that breaks kosher rules off the menu. We're going to add some cool items that no other kosher restaurants in the area do.

Is your target market now basically people who keep kosher?
We think we're going to be able to focus ourselves on not just practicing Jews, but also vegetarians, those who want to eat organic, those who care about high food sanitation standards. That's going to be our new market. We need to make sure people understand kosher is more than no meat with cheese, but also that we have someone whose full-time job it is to do things like pick through our produce and prevent contamination. If you're a vegetarian or a vegan, you'll know that nothing has been in common oil or prepped in common space.

You had alluded to new menu items; what will your new menu look like?
We're changing our tagline from "Middle Eastern food fast" to "kosher bistro and Sephardic street fare." Our popular items like our falafel, fried eggplant, schnitzel, and chicken kebab will be available as pockets, wraps, or plates, the way they are now. Our shawarma will no longer be chicken or beef and lamb, which is a processed product right now. Instead it will be authentic Israeli shawarma, which is made with dark meat turkey thighs. We were using the processed product because the city of Boston would never allow us to have a spit on the truck. In moving to our bigger Canton facility, we'll be cooking off the spits, shaving them all day, and hot-holding them.

We're going to have a bistro sandwich menu. There's smoked brisket on a braided seeded roll with horseradish aioli and caramelized onions. We're going to do a cold chicken with avocado and chipotle mayonnaise. We're going to have an applewood smoked pastrami with our own maple mustard and apple marmalade on a bulkie.

We want to be a utility for the kosher community; there are no kosher restaurants south of Boston. But we also want to be a bit of a novelty. In part of my research, I've found there's a lot of things you can't get kosher unless you ship it in from New York City. So in the restaurant we're going to have a rotating dinner menu three nights a week. It will change week by week. One week it will be a steakhouse with ribeye, wings, and short ribs. Then the next week we might do fish. The truck will feature some of those things on special from time to time. Not all restaurant items can be served on the truck, but we'll definitely have the new sandwiches.
· All coverage of The Chubby Chickpea on Eater [~EBOS~]