Analog Room Keys And Shabbat Elevators: How To Develop A Kosher Hotel
When Sharon Sharaby, developer and owner of Boca Raton real estate firm BSD Capital, moved to Hollywood, Florida, about 40 years ago, an Orthodox Jewish community was burgeoning, largely coalescing around the Young Israel synagogue. Nowadays, Sharaby suspects, there are as many Orthodox Jews in Hollywood as in Miami Beach.
Sharaby had that in mind when thinking up a new Wyndham hotel on the western side of the city — on U.S. 441, directly across the street from the Seminole Hard Rock Resort & Casino — and decided to make it a kosher hotel, with development and offerings in compliance with Jewish law.
At a tumultuous time for hospitality development, creating a niche hotel doesn't limit its reach, Sharaby said. It does the opposite.
“We did our market analysis, and we realized that we were at 88% occupancy rates on the hotel in that particular area,” Sharaby said. “This actually gave us an additional 6% of occupancy."
Travel can be challenging for Orthodox Jews. To comply with religious requirements, they must eat at kosher establishments, or pack kosher meals, and be within walking distances to certain houses of worship.
Continental breakfasts at traditional hotels are like land mines: “Pre-cut fruits or vegetables should be avoided, since they may have been cut with a knife that was used for non-kosher food. Cooked eggs, even in their shells (hard/medium/soft boiled), are forbidden,” according to one Jewish travel website.
Some niche travel sites, like Kosher Without Borders, direct readers to places where they can find suitable hotels, synagogues, restaurants and shopping centers clustered together. But having all their needs met under the roof of a single hotel could make travel easier.
The idea of a kosher hotel is popular in Israel, which has formal guidelines for hotels to be certified kosher. There are 168 rules, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. For example, figs cannot be served because they are prone to bugs and could result in someone violating a rule against eating insects; cabbages must be examined under good lighting conditions; and a full-time inspector must be on staff to enforce all the rules.
In the U.S., the kosher hotel concept is still catching on, with much looser hotel guidelines. Sharaby said a typical hotel property needs just a few tweaks to be considered kosher: a special elevator, a kosher food and beverage program, and traditional, analog room keys.
Kosher hotels are few and far between but can be found in places like New York, Los Angeles and the Catskills. In Bay Harbor, near Miami, the 96-room Altair Hotel in October opened as a kosher facility, with kosher food served throughout the property.
During Shabbat, the sabbath — a day of rest which lasts from sundown on Friday until three stars are visible on Saturday night — Orthodox Jews are not supposed to work or use electrical items. They don’t typically drive, make calls, use lights or make fires. That includes pushing the buttons on an elevator. Orthodox families might lug belongings up flights of stairs instead.
To comply with requirements, in the early 2000s, Shabbat elevators became popular. They could be programmed to stop at every floor automatically so that riders don’t have to press buttons.
There are similar concerns about using electronic keys to enter hotel rooms. Sharaby said his Wyndham Dolce Kosher House Hotel — under construction with a scheduled opening date for next October — will have Bluetooth entrances on its 100 rooms, but residents can ask for a standard physical key to override the electronic one. And food on-site will be kosher.
“Anyone who's not Jewish can obviously enjoy the kosher flavor, which is no different than a non-kosher restaurant, besides just where we buy our meat and our products,” Sharaby said.
His hotel will also have a synagogue room dedicated for prayers.
“It's going to elevate the hotel experience significantly when someone who has Orthodox requirements can just have breakfast in bed and be fully kosher, and go down to a café and have it fully kosher,” said Joseph Landsberg, director of capital advisory for Franklin Street, who helped arrange financing for the hotel. “They can invite all their family for a dinner at the hotel and stay [at] the hotel and it's a completely different experience. It really adds a couple of extra stars to the experience that the Orthodox community will have.”
Franklin Street’s Casey Crane, a chartered financial analyst with the firm’s Capital Advisory Team, also helped arrange the $10.2M loan for the property at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when there was a cautionary lending environment for hospitality projects.
When considering financing for properties that cater to niche markets, it's important they're not excluding potential customers, he said.
“That's something that anybody in a hotel business has to be mindful of as they're looking at serving a specific community,” Crane said. “You can't do it to the detriment of the broader community. Especially in this market that we're in.”
Sharaby's project was attractive, Crane said, because it would be the first Wyndham Dolce in Florida and one of the only completely kosher luxury hotels in the world. Its location near the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Resort, which includes a casino and hosts conventions, makes it well-positioned to attract guests.
The city of Hollywood has approved three more casinos on 441, according to Sharaby, who expects the area to boom in coming years as a result. His other projects include a 5-star Wyndham Grand a block away, plus two nearby mixed-use projects with residential and retail, and a free trolley service that will take riders to the casino, hotels and shops.
Is gambling OK in the Orthodox community?
“Totally cool,” Sharaby said. “In the Jewish religion, if you gamble, you can't be a witness; that’s like the only thing. But God allows us to do everything. That's why he put it on the earth.”