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Friday, September 20, 2019

Playa Bowls is a 65-location national chain with a surfer ambience and healthy eating menu with a focus on fruit and granola based bowls and beverages. Only New Jersey has two that are kosher: one in Oakhurst, and now, one in Englewood. Playa Bowls, on 38 East Palisade Avenue, has just received its kosher certification, though there are a few exceptions on the add-ins, from Rabbi Aaron Mehlman, Executive Rabbinic Director, National Kosher Supervision. He immediately was taken with the restaurant’s unique concept. “Playa Bowls approached me and I was very excited,” said Rabbi Mehlman. “It’s a very hip, modern, impactful establishment. I like doing something out of the box to offer new cuisine to the public.”

The heart of Playa Bowls is the large selection of frozen fruit-based drinks, snacks and treats. Color coded menu sections on a large blackboard give the diner choices of Acai, green, pitaya, coconut, chia pudding, or banana bowls with assorted toppings. Drinks include smoothies, fresh juices, “lizzmonade” and iced teas. Non-kosher add-ins are identified clearly on the blackboard.

“The fun thing about our menu is that it’s not breakfast, lunch, or snack but all of the above,” said Jerry Eicke, one of the partners of Playa Bowls. “Moms and dads come in for a post workout shake or bowl. Kids come at lunch. Students come after school or after sports. Everybody can enjoy a bit of healthiness and happiness.”

Eicke said they sought kosher certification after becoming aware of the many kosher consumers in the area. “It took a few months to make adjustments in the menu. We eliminated some items and got different products, like alternate proteins in the smoothies, until the point where the rabbi felt comfortable.”

Rabbi Mehlman said Playa Bowls was already 90 percent kosher. “We changed some suppliers and eliminated some fresh fruit. We don’t give hechsher on fresh strawberries which can be infested with spider mites.” As for the few toppings that are not kosher, Rabbi Mehlman said they are clearly identified. “As long as there is transparency with adequate signage, I feel secure.”

Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes was instrumental in encouraging Playa Bowls to get kosher certification, noting that some kosher consumers might think that the fruit-based items on the menu are permissible without certification. “The truth is that I saw a lot of kids from our community in the place, trying to be selective about the menu, so I implored them to get certification,” he said. “I thought it would send the right message. I told the owners they would make up the cost with increased patronage.”

Playa Bowls in Englewood has the same look and feel as the others: surfer videos on wall-mounted flat screen TVs, recessed wood paneling on the walls, and an atmosphere that makes you think you’re at the beach and work is far away. Each Playa Bowls location has something unique about it. In Englewood, murals painted on the wall give the space an artistic identity.

Playa Bowls was founded by Robert Giuliani and Abby Taylor, who grew up surfing at the Jersey shore and travelled the world looking for the best waves and unending summer sun. Everywhere they went they found frozen acai or pitaya fruit bowls, and brought the concept back home. They partnered with a Belmar pizza shop to sell acai bowls from a pop-up cart outside the store and turned it into a national craze.

Eicke came to Playa Bowls from a very different place than the founders. A career in finance took him all over the world, away from home for long stretches, and he decided he needed a change. He opened a few salad-themed eating spots and one of the vendors introduced him to Giuliani and Taylor. A Playa Bowls restaurant sounded like a natural progression for him. And the owners were impressed with his combination of financial and restaurant management skills.

Eicke learned about Englewood, and keeping kosher, from his twenty-year friendship with Jonathan Gellis, owner of the Teaneck Doghouse, whom he worked with in finance. “I always liked this area and had in the back of my head that If I ever see anything, I would love to be here,” he recalled. “Tim, my partner, saw an Englewood location available and we took it.”

Playa Bowls has gotten a warm reception from Mayor Wildes and the business community. “I told the mayor that out of any town so far, Englewood has been most supportive by other businesses in the area. If there is a gym opening or Pilates opening, we try to get there and hand out smoothies. And they have reciprocated. The stores are looking to collaborate, which we didn’t anticipate.”

Mayor Wildes said when he took office, he moved quickly to expedite Playa Bowls’ move into Englewood. “People are coming to Englewood for a different experience. We are open for business; we don’t want dormancy downtown.” He said both he and his father enjoy going there and he is appreciative of Playa Bowls’ sensitivity to the wellness initiatives he has brought to Englewood. He also thinks it’s important for kosher options to expand in Englewood.

Customers have given Playa Bowls a sunny welcome. Several people have noticed the kosher certification and come inside. “Customers are saying it’s an unbelievable concept; so healthy and such a good experience,” Eicke said. “A woman came in and said she felt like she was on vacation in here, even if only for an hour. It’s a happy place, with the smell of fresh fruit in the air.”

Follow Playa Bowls in Englewood on Facebook and Instagram @playabowlsenglewood.

By Bracha Schwartz