Food Fight On 41st Street

Anywhere else in Miami Beach, the black-and-orange poster advertising roasted duck would be just another brash entreaty to passers-by with a penchant for poultry. But on the front of the World Famous Chicken Factory on 41st Street, the sign is evidence of a territorial war.

Another sign is plastered less than a foot away, on a kosher frozen-yogurt parlor. "ZIGI'S YOGURT ETC. IS IN NO WAY ASSOCIATED WITH THE WORLD FAMOUS CHICKEN FACTORY NEXT DOOR," reads the declaration. "ZIGI'S YOGURT ETC. IS STRICTLY KOSHER ONLY."

None of the rancor, which has festered for months in an otherwise tranquil, heavily Orthodox Jewish community, was apparent when the owners -- Scott Benrube of the Chicken Factory and Zigmund Markevitz of Zigi's -- began construction of their shops late last year. They hired the same workmen to prepare their restaurants. They patronized each other's shop. They even decided to erect one continuous awning across the front of both businesses, in order to save money.

But the relationship began to sour when Benrube and Markevitz selected similar color schemes for their shops: red, white, and yellow for the Chicken Factory; red and white for Zigi's. Markevitz accused Benrube of stealing his idea, a charge Benrube denies. "All along we had the idea for red, white, and yellow," remarks the 42-year-old Benrube, a former clothes manufacturer who has lived on Miami Beach since 1960.

Despite the decorating snafu, Zigi's scooped its first kosher cone this past December as planned and the Chicken Factory fired up its grill in January. Any hope of salvaging the friendship, though, disappeared several weeks later, when Benrube taped a sign on his front window announcing he offered Empire kosher chickens. "I had a lot of religious people asking for kosher chicken," explains Benrube, who is Jewish. The problem: the Chicken Factory wasn't an authorized kosher restaurant and didn't conform to the strict Jewish dietary laws that regulate kosher food preparation.

The sign angered Markevitz and many members of the Orthodox community, who thought Benrube was intentionally trying to mislead patrons into thinking his restaurant was entirely kosher. "I told him not to lie to his own people," says Markevitz, also Jewish and a Beach resident. "Either you go kosher or you don't go kosher." (Markevitz says he personally is not kosher, but made his shop kosher to appeal to the growing population of Orthodox Jews in the area.)

In February, a code enforcement officer from the City of Miami Beach cited Benrube for "advertising the selling of kosher food in a nonkosher restaurant" and ordered him to include a disclaimer on his sign explaining that the restaurant was not kosher. "He may have been selling kosher chickens, but he was cooking them and mixing them with the other nonkosher food, which contaminates them," explains code enforcement specialist Manish J. Spitz, who is also an ordained rabbi. "To be kosher, you have to be 100 percent kosher. He was obviously not observing [the Jewish dietary laws], so we cited him."

According to Benrube, the inspector had overlooked a handwritten disclaimer posted on his window beneath the Empire chicken notice. To avoid any further confusion, Benrube ordered a formal sign from a signmaker, but claims someone ripped it off the window several months ago. Since then, though, he has stopped ordering kosher chickens because, he says, they cost too much.

Not only does Benrube blame Markevitz for siccing the city inspectors on him, the chicken man also says his neighbor has orchestrated a protracted effort to drive him out of business. Benrube says inspectors from the Dade County Health Department, the state Division of Hotels and Restaurants, and the Dade County Department of Environmental Regulation have made visits to his shop in response to anonymous complaints about sanitation and the odors that the chicken grill produces. (Benrube says he has never been cited for any health violations.) In addition, he claims Markevitz has instructed Zigi's patrons not to eat at the Chicken Factory, saying the food is bad.

Markevitz denies making any of the anonymous complaints and says he has never discouraged anyone from eating next door. He put up the sign on his window disassociating his shop from the Chicken Factory because, he says, people thought the two businesses were related. "I don't want people to think I have the slightest relationship with that store," he hisses. "People were telling me they couldn't eat my ice cream because they thought I was also selling nonkosher chicken."

Benrube says he's felt continual pressure from the general Orthodox community to make his restaurant kosher. "I used to get people in here constantly, asking why I didn't go kosher," he remarks. "I'd say, `I don't want to.' And they'd inevitably say, `What? Are you a goy?' I'd say, `No, and there's the fucking door and you can get out!' They're upset that I'm a Jewish guy who doesn't want to go into the fold with them."

While the Chicken Factory and other nonkosher eateries along 41st Street are still in the majority, the commercial district has recently experienced a noticeable increase in the number of businesses that cater to the Orthodox community, says University of Miami geography professor Ira Sheskin, who specializes in Jewish demography. He attributes the increase in Orthodox-oriented businesses to a tremendous rise in the number of Orthodox Jews who have moved to Miami Beach, specifically the area between Dade Boulevard and Haulover Cut.

Since he had no intention of going kosher, Benrube now regrets his decision to open his business on 41st Street. "I think that coming here was a mistake," he says. "I thought that there would be a lot of young families who would be supportive and were looking for a place for a cheap meal. I didn't know I'd be facing so much resentment." Benrube says he has considered moving to South Beach "to be away from the problems."

While he stays, though, i's unlikely Benrube will go out of his way to patch up his relationship with Markevitz or his Orthodox neighbors. He recently began hiring rock and blues musicians to play outside his restaurant on weekend evenings, knowing full well that he would be disturbing the relative peace of the Jewish Sabbath. And he's promoting a new addition to his menu with another prominent sign in his window:


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