Famous South Florida Kosher Eatery Closes It’s Doors.
Guest Post by Adam Weinberg, Jewlicious Festivals Music Director
WHAT’S IN A NAME â€“ SARA’S
I first really learned the greatness of Sara’s shortly after I met Michelle when we were both 16. For those of you who don’t know the story, we met on a summer program at the University of Vermont where High School sophomores and juniors; who in reality where just there to stalk local celebrities from the rock-group Phish, pretended to take college level courses. Michelle and I had mutual friends, and in one of our first conversations she asked me if I had ever heard of the Vegetarian/Kosher restaurant Sara’s. Not knowing why she was asking the question, and only having been in a few kosher restaurants in my life at that point, I for some reason thought that responding â€œyeah that place is alright,â€ would make me seem cool. Michelle responded that Sara’s was her family’s place, to which I immediately back pedaled trying save face. It was a stupid, uniformed response, and when we returned to Miami I met Michelle countless times at Sara’s to experience firsthand the grave inaccuracy of that initial comment.
Now exactly 14 years after that conversation, I truly realize how incredibly stupid that response was (thank g-d Michelle still agreed to marry me year’s later). I am also lucky that Michelle is a kind-hearted person with a slow temper, for as I have learned over the years Sara’s has customers so devoted that if I had made this statement to one of them instead, I’d probably be lying in a gutter somewhere beaten unconscious by a Falafel Sandwich (or perhaps by a Shmopper). Some of these customers have been going to Sara’s for the better part of three decades. They started going as single young adults in their mid to late twenties, then started to bring their kids, and now show up nearly every week to treat their newly born grandchildren. These customer’s also refuse to admit that anyone in my wife’s family has a given last-name. My wife is referred to as â€œMichelle of Sara’sâ€, which I guess made the whole taking my last name at marriage a little easier for her, since she knew that if we lived in South Florida (which we do) no one would ever call her, or for that matter even know, a different last name for her.
This is what it means to have a good name. The originator of Hasidic Judaism (focusing on joy) was called the Baal Shem Tov; which is Hebrew for â€œMaster of a Good Nameâ€, and to me Sara’s was a â€œmasterâ€; the true embodiment of the philosophy of love, joy, charity, and dedicated service in restaurant form.
Much more after the break
My father-in-law Jack Kohn (or Jack from Sara’s as his driver’s license might as well have read) along with my mother-in-law Rachel, opened Sara’s with Rachel’s father and brother Ovadia and Sammy Tamir respectively when he was 28 years old. The counter they walked away from last Friday at 60 years of age, was the same counter, in the same store, at the same location as that first day nearly 33 years ago. My wife’s family worked so incredibly hard over these three decades to create an atmosphere that not only served the Jewish community of South Florida, but an environment that made everyone feel welcomed and loved. They would regularly invite kids back to the pizza-making station to make their own pies, they recorded a number of original songs to play for various occasions in the store (birthdays, engagements, hold-music on the phone, etc), they named menu items after those who frequented the store (Rabbi Lipskar Salad) and those who worked there (Galinsky Wrap), they catered parties and provided food to Jewish schools throughout South Florida, they would Fedex their famous muffins to customers who weren’t local, and they amassed a menu so creative and so diverse in the world of vegetarian cuisine, that it was longer than a good number of recent books I’ve read. The restaurant became a landmark not only because the food was amazing, but because people really wanted to hang out with the people who were at Sara’s. Until it’s final hour, when someone walked into Sara’s it was likely that before they sat at a table, they would first have to go say â€œhiâ€ to everyone in the store they knew, but hadn’t been expecting to see. It was a place of familiarity in the true essence of the word; in that it reminded people of being with family.
Just this past year, I was at Sara’s the day after Phish finished a 4-night concert run in Downtown Miami. At the counter were a group of Phish fans (the dreadlocks, unwashed clothes, and constant bickering over which night of the run had the better â€œbust-outsâ€ – an annoying term used to refer to the number of rarely played songs performed in a given show – gave it away), deciding what they wanted to order for take-out. After they ordered, I got into a conversation with them and learned that they had heard about Sara’s from some non-Jewish but vegetarian friends who they had met in downtown Miami (a good 30 minute drive from Sara’s). They had made the drive for the first time four days prior to check it out, and had been driving back every day since to try new amazing food. To me this what made Sara’s a place of love; a restaurant serving the Jewish community for over thirty years that inspires a group on non-Jewish veggie-leaning-hippies to make a 30 minute drive every day for four days, when they could have easily gone to any number of restaurants in walking distance from where they were staying.
College was a pretty amazing time, and I was really fortunate to make an unmatched group of friends. The year after we graduated, we all felt a bit distant without the constant companionship of our group and decided to all get together in South Florida over a long New Year’s Eve weekend. The location was chosen really for three main reasons 1) the weather would be nice, 2) a member of the group’s grandparents had an apartment in Miami Beach we could crash at in addition to my parent’s place, and 3) there was Sara’s â€“ pretty much the best kosher-vegetarian food any of us knew, and a place where we could all go to eat or order-in from. I don’t remember how many times we ate at Sara’s or picked-up food over those three or four days, but I do remember the attached pictures, and it screams joy. Often times in life, a group of friends or family may be in the midst of a truly joyous gathering but without an â€œanchorâ€ that forces you to sit down and take in the moment, the significance of that joy can be lost. Sara’s often was that â€œanchorâ€, bringing people together to appreciate what was taking place, like after a sports team wins a big game, they all go to the locker room to take in and appreciate the positivity of what has taken place.
On the night before our wedding, unbeknownst to me, my father-in-law and Uncle Sammy left the restaurant open into the wee hours of the night for our friends who were in town to gather and eat and basically pre-party. I was fast asleep when my phone rang. It was a friend of mine from college who was currently experiencing the overwhelming food choices of Sara’s for the first time. After he apologized for waking me up hours before my wedding, he demanded I tell him what he should order; there were simply too many items on the menu that he wanted to eat for him to choose just one. In the background I heard our friends laughing, singing, and ordering all sorts of amazing food. It was absurd, but it was joy at a very high level. I slept well the rest of that night, and our friends showed up to the wedding glowing with the goodness Sara’s had showed them all night.
For those of us who are fortunate enough, we will create careers that go beyond the basic act of providing a service and being paid for doing so. For those of us who are as fortunate as my wife’s family our careers will give us purpose, they will allow us to give back to the community, and they will make us better people due to the nature of the work we do. All of this was true for Sara’s. Sara’s employed people who otherwise may not have ever found work, and after decades of unconditional love, trust and loyalty, these employees became much more than your usual restaurant worker. If they missed a day of work, customers would ask if they were ok, and when Sara’s decided to close, my wife’s family ensured these employees would have a new job to start immediately. I don’t know what it takes to give of yourself in the way my in-laws have, but it is certainly a goal in my own life.
On a weekly basis homeless people or mentally disturbed people would walk into the store looking for food. The ability my father-in-law had to kindly deal with these people, offer them a simple meal, and control any concerns from other customers was remarkable. Recently a homeless-looking man walked into the store (most likely suffering from schizophrenia) looking for a meal. As he approached the counter I heard him mumbling derogatory statements about Jewish customs, while repeatedly asking for food. My father-in-law gave him food without hesitation, and when the man started to explain to my father-in-law that he would pay him later; as he was awaiting a large bank wire from his accounts in the Cayman Islands to hit his account in States; Jack responded with a smile, â€œDon’t worry about it, I know you’re good for it.â€ This is not just charity, but charity done with kindness. Charity given in a way that the receiver doesn’t feel looked down upon by the giver; and the reality is, that is what Sara’s accomplished day in and day out. Even in these hard economic times Sara’s was the paradigm of what a true â€œfamilyâ€ establishment should be.
A few years ago, I was helping produce a Television Concert Special for PBS. The artist featured in the show, was coming to South Florida to help promote the broadcast on PBS, and the television station wanted to know if I knew of a restaurant that the artist would want them to order from while he was at the studio for the promotions. Before I could even make a suggestion the producer from the station finished by saying, â€œâ€¦because if you don’t have a preference there is this really great restaurant called Sara’s that caters a lot of our events and they are so kind, that they often will donate the food for artists.â€ As fate would have it the day before Sara’s closed its doors for good, I was back at PBS helping them promote a different artist. By this time they knew my relationship to Sara’s, and when I went home to watch the program’s rebroadcast, sure enough during every break the screen read, â€œWe would like to thank Sara’s for generously donating the food to our staff and guests for this broadcast.â€
I could go on and onâ€¦but you’ll have to wait for the bookâ€¦
The obviousness of Sara’s dedicated service to the community and those just visiting from out of town needs little storytelling. So I’ll put in plain fact:
– Nearly 33 years in business under the same and original owners, in the same location
– Some members of the cooking staff had been at the store for 19 years the day it closed
– Some members of the wait-staff had been at the store for more than 15 years
– Abe Baby (who bussed tables) has been with the store since day 1
– Three generations of customers. The 7 year old girl who made her own pizza with Jack and Sammy in 1980, is now a 37 year old-mom who brings her 7 year-old kids to eat that same pizza
– They won a number of awards including several coveted New Times â€œbest ofâ€ awards, and AOL City Guide’s best Vegetarian award
– Etc etc etc
It will be hard to not have Sara’s anymore. I guess perhaps the fact that I’ve basically become a vegan over the past four months will help (I don’t how much longer I could have avoided eating another Lafa Meltâ€¦ohh that’s right I ate one the night they closed J ). I don’t how long it will take for our 2 year old daughter to stop asking for Zeidy and Safta every time we drive pass the restaurant. But I do know that my in-laws deserve a break. They deserve to be honored as heroes of the community, and to find a new way to express their creativity in way that affords them more time for their family and for themselves.
I have said some inaccurate things in my life, but in thinking back on that first conversation I had with Michelle when we were 16, that may have been the most inaccurate thing I’ve ever said. Sara’s was not only my favorite restaurant to eat at , but just being there always guaranteed that our week would be a little better.
Thank you Sara’s.