Customers cautious about sitting down in kosher restaurants

Ben Yehuda Cafe and Pizzeria
Ben Yehuda Cafe and Pizzeria (Courtesy of Joshua Katz)

Restaurants in Greater Washington are starting to allow limited indoor dining as quarantine restrictions are lifted. But not all kosher eateries are following suit.

“We don’t want to take responsibility for people actually eating inside right now,” said Harold Willner, owner of Seven Seas Sushi in Silver Spring. “We’re still doing all pickup and delivery.”

The District entered into phase two on June 22, allowing restaurants to have outdoor dining and indoor dining up to 50 percent capacity while implementing various social distancing measures like having tables six feet apart. Maryland instituted the same rules earlier, on June 12, and Virginia began allowing restaurants to operate at full capacity on July 1.

Those who have opened up for indoor dining continue to see the vast majority orders to be pickups or deliveries. Joshua Katz, owner of Ben Yehuda Cafe and Pizzeria in Silver Spring, said it doesn’t matter what the rules are if people don’t feel safe going out to eat.

“I just don’t think that people are really ready to eat inside the restaurant just yet,” Katz said. “It’s really not so much up to the government, it’s more of what customers are feeling.”

Michael Chelst, owner of Char Bar in the District, said indoor dining will do little to help downtown business which is suffering from a lack of tourists. Attractions like the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Archives, Botanic Garden, Library of Congress and Arlington National Cemetery remain closed to the public.

Chelst estimates more than 60 percent of his customers come from out of town. And the cancellation of major events like the 2021 AIPAC conference, which draws thousands to the city, have hurt all kosher restaurants in Greater Washington.

“In the restaurant business, if you’re not 90 percent at your normal capacity, you’re losing money,” Chelst said. “We’re just basically going to lose a lot of money and probably for 12 months, just try to survive.”

Last month, Char Bar’s windows were damaged during protests over the police killing of George Floyd. Chelst said they have since cleaned up the broken glass and are in the process of getting them repaired. A GoFundMe was launched to help cover the costs of repair and raised $9,200, he said. Despite the community support, Char Bar is struggling.

“We’re just opening for dinner time only from four to eight,” Chelst said. “If I was totally closed, I’d be losing the same amount of money as if I’m open now. The money’s going to paying employees and trying to keep them.”

Shouk at its Mt. Vernon Triangle location has reopened after being damaged in the protests. Its windows were broken, electronics looted and the restaurant was set on fire. CEO Ran Nussbacher said they’re in the process of making repairs. A GoFundMe raised more than $800 to support Shouk by buying food from them for the House of Ruth shelter.

Regardless of whether they’re allowing indoor dining, area kosher restaurants are implementing new strategies to make up for the recent economic hardships. Several restaurants have begun pick-up programs to make up for the loss of catering jobs and sit down diners.

Chelst said he has done more than a dozen “drive-in barbeques” in which Char Bar and the Brooklyn Sandwich Co. food truck, which Chelst also owns, take orders from a synagogue group and then deliver the meals outside the synagogue.

Shouk and Holy Chow! in Silver Spring have similar programs where they take orders and deliver to a neighborhood outside their typical delivery range.

“And that’s been going extremely well,” Holy Chow! owner Ami Schreiber said. “We have more and more people ordering because they don’t really have many kosher food options to begin with. It also gives family something to look forward to.”

Other business strategies include Shouk selling ingredients and Seven Seas selling whole fish to customers. Seven Seas also started selling DIY sushi kits for people can make their own meals at home by following a livestream class or video tutorial on Seven Seas’ website.

Katz believes it’ll be a year before business returns to what it was before the pandemic. He and several other restaurants were able to take advantage of the government’s Paycheck Protection Program. The money allowed him to increase staff and his employees’ hours. But Katz’s funds have since run out and he anticipates cutting hours and jobs.

“It’s just more trying to figure out how do I adapt to that new reality,” Katz said. “At this point, I’m no longer concerned about the fate of the restaurant as I was maybe three months ago. I’m fairly certain that we’re going to pull through, but it is going to be a whole new normal. And I’m trying to figure out what that’s going to be.”

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