How Muriel's Went Down
The kosher eatery could have been the centerpiece of Seward Park. Why did it crash and burn within a year?
Why is it so hard to keep kosher restaurants open in Seattle?
With the closure of Muriel’s, the Seward Park kosher offshoot of Zylberschtein’s, the question lingers like the aftertaste of an everything bagel. Was it the awkward space-sharing arrangement with Chuck’s Hop Shop, Third Place Books, a cafe, and other vendors of non-kosher food; the unusual ordering process and to-go-style meals; or hours that didn’t quite align with the cafe or the hop shop? Or was it the menu, the kashrut regulations, a lack of support, the price, or just the way fate wipes out so many restaurants? Or all of the above?
“A lot of it was about the cost of operating a business in 2022,” says owner Josh Grunig. “The cost of our ingredients was very high, and we were committed to offering an affordable menu.”
The bagel-centric kosher dairy restaurant opened January 20th, 2022, filling the space left vacant by Raconteur during Covid. It captured the dreams of the kosher-keeping Seward Park Jewish community and the imaginations of locals longing for a decent bagel and a place to eat in the neighborhood. Grunig had wanted to create a kosher option and used the opportunity to work with Chuck’s and Third Place Books to create a tribute to his grandmother, Muriel Stein.
But Muriel’s never managed to hit a stride, and it abruptly closed just 11 months later facing a revenue shortfall. On November 16th, Grunig shared an update to the Indiegogo campaign page mourning the closure. “The sweat and tears we have poured into this endeavor; learning all the ways of kosher cookery, the long days, and the ten thousand adjustments to make the best food we know how,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, the chips have not been stacked in our favor. Supply chain issues, insane food costs and the general cost of doing business during a pandemic have really made Muriel’s success a challenge.”
It’s not a narrative everyone buys, however.
“The hours were terrible, the menu was limited, they were always running out of stuff and changing the menu constantly,” says Mendel Notik, who invested in the Indiegogo campaign and says he helped Grunig and his team with kashrut and business advice. “It’s not rocket science. Certain things are simple. It needs to make sense. My daughter and her family and we live walking distance. We tried to patronize as much as possible, but you never know if and when they’re open or what’s available on the menu or if ‘Sorry we’re out of it.’”
Another early investor who asked to remain anonymous expressed similar frustration.
“We wanted a kosher bagel shop in the neighborhood,” they say. “The food was not that good. It ranged from really bad to fine. Occasionally there was something that was really good. It was very expensive and it took a really long time to come out and it was unreliable.”
Muriel’s was frequently out of menu items, including bagels, even early on weekend mornings—prime bagel time. “The restaurant didn’t have an identity,” the investor says. “It wasn’t a bagel shop. Every other bagel shop, you see the case of bagels. You can reliably pick up a dozen bagels in 10 minutes. At Muriel’s, there’s no bagel case, you order at a window, and get a plastic blinking thing and wait 45 minutes.”
That, on top of the expense and complaints that the bagels were overcooked or burned, led the investor to believe there were deeper, systemic issues at play. Without a dinner menu, too, Muriel’s may not have been able to complement Chuck’s effectively.
“Chuck’s knows what the hell they’re doing,” Notik adds. “They have 100 beers on tap. This was a perfect opportunity. Nobody had to look for parking. And how long does it take to make a tuna sandwich?”
“You can have a food court-style place that has a blinking piece of plastic for people to pick up their food,” the anonymous investor says. “But then you are a food court restaurant and everything is under $10, and it’s fast. Or you can be an experience where people go for five hours, but then you’re Canlis.”
Addressing the wait times, Grunig and marketing director Hilary Maler cite the industry-wide challenge of staffing. “It’s hard to get people to show up to an interview,” Maler says. “Josh posted to hire people. He’d have frequent no-shows. Or you’d meet someone and they’d be great and you’d say ‘Start tomorrow’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, I found another job.’”
“We were trying to grow in a sustainable way,” Grunig says. “When we had opportunities to, when we were trying to expand our offerings and our hours, it was challenging because the staff we had was spread really thin.”
Then there are the rumors that Muriel’s had the short end of the stick insofar as its contract with Chuck’s. Muriel’s closing announcement cited “circumstances beyond our control,” implying that they were sent packing.
“No comment,” Grunig heartily replied to the question of what happened with Chuck’s. Owner Chuck Shin has not yet returned a request for comment. The tap house is now serving smash burgers, hand-cut fries, and deep-fried bacon.
Muriel’s is not the first kosher business to flop, and it’s likely not the last, especially with Island Crust teetering after a non-kosher cheese scandal this fall, following years of spotty service. Finding the intersection of good food, decent value, and reliability has been as elusive as an East Coast bialy for Seattle’s kosher establishments, save for Pabla and Teapot, which don’t rely on the kosher community as their central audience. But it’s not for lack of trying or support. “If [Grunig] says they’re not supported, I’m going to blow a gasket,” Notik says.
Muriel’s did have supporters—both patrons who loved the food and others who hung on and prayed for it to find its way. Responses to the closure announcements on Facebook and Instagram were dirge-like. “What?!?! 💔😭😭 Nooo We loved having you guys in the neighborhood,” cried a commenter on Instagram. “Your food is delicious!”
Grunig is back at Zylberschtein’s in Pinehurst. When we talked, during Hanukkah, his team had just made around 2,000 latkes. He and Maler expressed a combination of exhaustion and sadness.
“All of these kosher businesses have come and gone,” Grunig says. “I really took that to heart. I think people overwhelmingly loved the food that we were doing, and I think there were a lot of successes.”
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Thanks, Emily. I do think it’s telling that the Va’ad did not respond. It’s too bad the Va’ad doesn’t really serve a positive advocacy role for bringing kosher restaurants to Seattle.
I have a strong suspicion that were it not for the requirement of Va'ad certification (and the changes and costs thereby incurred), this kosher restaurant might well have been able to make it. Ironically and paradoxically, the Va'ad has put many kosher restaurants out of business in Seattle over the years.