Southerners drive hours for kosher Chinese takeout

He and his staff dish out more than 700 pounds of chicken each week and more than 300 pounds of rice. Customers gobble at least 700 eggrolls rolled in Atlanta with skins shipped from New York.

Word of Chai Peking is spreading quickly through cities across the South. Robbins has sent meals by Greyhound bus and private van to parties in Charlotte, N.C., and Memphis, Tenn. Robbins says residents of Savannah, Ga., have driven for several hours for a kosher Chinese dinner.

Robbins, 48, and a former senior vice president for an international shoe franchise, says his own craving for Chinese food prompted him to find sesame chicken he could eat.

"I wanted Chinese food and I couldn't get any," he says as a line forms at Chai Peking's steam table near the Kroger supermarket's produce section.

He stopped patronizing traditional Chinese restaurants about six years ago, when he began observing the laws of kashrut. After he organized a few well-received Chinese dinners for his synagogue, congregants began to urge him to expand the concept.

"Everyone said, `Why don't you open a Chinese restaurant?' I said, `Ain't no way I'm opening a Chinese restaurant!'" Robbins says with a laugh.

But the idea percolated. Robbins did some research. He figured kosher Chinese food could attract enough patrons in Atlanta, which boasts the South's fastest-growing Jewish population. It would thrive, he thought, if he could keep prices competitive, appeal to non-Jewish customers, too, and limit his expenses.

"My emotional side wanted a sit-down restaurant, but my business end said, `No way,'" says Robbins.

Before he spent his bank loan, Robbins visited Yaakov Portnoy, owner of the Mainly Chow Chinese Restaurant in Passaic, N.J., for a crash course in how to run a kosher Chinese restaurant.

When he returned to Atlanta, Robbins hired Moon Get "Jimmy" Lee as his cook. He employed five workers and opened for business Nov. 25 in a supermarket in one of Atlanta's Orthodox neighborhoods.

The location in a 24-hour supermarket meant Robbins could pick up business from non-Jews who wanted a convenient nosh while shopping. About 40 percent of his customers are not Jewish, he estimates. They probably do not know that Chai Peking is supervised by the Atlanta Kashruth Commission or that the restaurant serves only glatt kosher beef. But for those customers who do keep kosher, those facts matter.

"Chinese is a good idea," says Michael Strizhevsky, an Atlanta math professor who says he visits Chai Peking weekly. Before it opened, his only options in the city were a kosher vegetarian restaurant and a kosher pizza shop.

"Unfortunately, we don't have much to choose from," he said.

Other Southern cities have even fewer choices. That may help explain why residents there are willing to order from a kosher Chinese restaurant hundreds of miles away.

Mariashi Groner, director of the Jewish Day School of Charlotte, arranged to have Chai Peking cater the school's Purim dinner for 200 guests.

She paid a driver $100 to make the four-hour trip through three states to pick up and deliver large foil pans of moo goo gai pan, egg rolls and fortune cookies.