Before the onset of COVID it was not uncommon to see a tour bus parked outside Ba-Li Laffa, a kosher restaurant in Thornhill, Ont. Ephraim Dloomy, the co-owner, said that during the summer Ba-Li Laffa had been a regular stop for Israeli bus tours travelling to Toronto from New York.
“We’d be serving 30 to 50 people at a time,” he said. “We also got traffic from tourists from New York, Florida, Israel, but no more now. We rely strictly on locals.”
Ba-Li Laffa’s predicament typifies the impact of COVID on restaurants and other enterprises that make up the Canadian hospitality industry. The lockdowns, restaurant capacity limits and other restrictions have taken a significant financial toll on restaurants and caterers, including kosher businesses.
In addition to its dining-room service, Ba-Li Laffa had also been catering for shivahs, sheva brachot and other life-cycle events. “Before the pandemic we’d have catering orders for 30 to 40 or even 50 people,” Dloomy said. “All the events have stopped. Now if we get a catering order for 10 to 12 people, it’s ‘Wow!’”
This decline and the emphasis on takeout have led to a reduction in staffing, he said. “We cut the dishwasher and four waitresses.”
Despite the downturn in business, Dloomy remains optimistic about the future. “In five to six months we’ll be back to where we used to be. Eventually we’ll all get the vaccine. Once everyone is vaccinated, we should be back.”
COVID has led other kosher restaurants in the GTA to also make cutbacks. Dr. Laffa, a popular Middle Eastern fast-food chain, has temporarily closed two of its five outlets – its kiosk in the Promenade Mall in Thornhill and the downtown location at 76 Gerrard St. E.
It has also been quiet along the Eglinton Avenue retail strip west of Bathurst Street, home to five kosher establishments – Bistro Grande, Marron Bistro, Aish Tanoor, The Jacob Food Company and 3SK (Three Sisters Kitchen) Café.
Milo Zaatreh is the manager of Aish Tanoor, a restaurant specializing in Middle Eastern fare. After the first lockdown last spring, business was slow, but it picked up during the summer months, when the expanded outdoor patio opened, he said. But with the onset of the colder weather and the various government restrictions in 2021, the business has mainly been takeout and delivery.
Chanan Gans, who co-owns the 3SK Café with his wife, Amanda Rose, said the pandemic forced him to reconsider their business model. “We started off with a few small tables, and for two and a half years we operated as a café.”
During the initial COVID lockdown in 2020 the café closed, he said. “We had to think outside the box to proceed.”
They turned the café into a “grab-and-go” place for healthy food with an emphasis on home-made and artisanal foods that cater to dietary preferences like gluten-free, vegan and keto.
The home-made soups, pickles, granola and specialty breads are available though online ordering and delivery systems like Uber Eats.
“Overall, the pandemic inspired us to create a better business model,” Gans said. “We can serve more customers by packaging things.”
While many restaurateurs may have been forced to adjust their businesses in response to COVID, Tal Menashe decided to open his restaurant, La Briut, last June, in the midst of the pandemic.
He said he wanted to market kosher Kavkazi cuisine, the regional dishes of the Jews of the Caucasus, an area that includes parts of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
While launching a new restaurant during COVID was not ideal, he said the response from the community has been very positive. “I wanted a restaurant with live music. I wanted to create a party atmosphere. We got a lot of attention. People had never tried Kavkazi food.”
La Briut has also expanded into catering, Menashe said explaining that he does individually boxed, full-course meals for life-cycle events like weddings and bar mitzvahs. In many cases guests receive the meal, but attend the event online.
“I’m doing better than I expected, but not as good as I want it to be,” Menashe said. “I wish there were more simchahs and small parties.”
Certainly other kosher caterers in the GTA share Menashe’s wish for more simchahs.
Honey Levy of Levy’s Kosher Catering said since the onset of COVID there have been no affairs. “We’ve had some takeout for people’s bar and bat mitzvah, but it’s been very quiet. It’s definitely not what we’re used to,” she said.
“Take our synagogues. They’ve had virtual gala parties on Zoom. We had a small wedding at The Avenue Banquet Hall. We were lucky enough to get a wedding.”
There are some small bookings for the future, she added. “Hopefully things will come through, God willing.”
Walter Vaz, a partner in Zuchter Berk Kosher Caterers, said the last year has been tough. “COVID has been a catering disaster. There have been no weddings, no house parties, virtually nothing.
“This is the first year in our history, since 1938, where there was no Passover catering. There was not enough demand for Passover.”
He said the banquet halls associated with the company – Eglinton W. Gallery and York Mills Gallery –are doing about 30 per cent of their usual business.
The Toronto Jewish community, should provide more support to its kosher restaurants, Vaz said. “People could do more, especially during the pandemic.”
Kosher caterers and restaurants in Montreal have also been hurt by COVID.
“It was a big hit for the business,” said Moshe Chetrit, a co-owner of the catering company, La Marguerite. “There were no events this year.”
“We have adapted by putting our store online. We pivoted to offering a high-quality take-out service,” he said. “We had to think out-of-the-box to keep our staff.”
Chetrit said the company is known for its lactose-free pastries, which are sold in kosher and non-kosher stores across North America.
“We have the largest kosher gourmet offerings in North America on our website.”
La Marguerite also specializes in French macarons. These delicate sandwich cookies are sold directly to consumers through a new website, Chetrit said. “You create your own customized box by choosing from the 22 flavours. We can ship directly to our customers anywhere in North America.”
Mike Assedo, owner of Chez Benny Express, a kosher, fast-food outlet in the Montreal suburb of Ville St. Laurent, said his restaurant was less affected by COVID than other food businesses. “My strong point is that I was doing a lot of takeout to begin with.”
Last spring, he closed Chez Benny down for two months following a COVID outbreak in the Montreal Orthodox community.
“We had all sorts of customers from Cote St. Luc, so I was reluctant to open,” he said.
“We opened once there was more control of the virus. We were very busy in the summer with the outdoor terrace,” he recounted. “When the disease escalated in the fall we became strictly take out.”
Naftali Kornikh, owner of City Grill Kosher in the Snowdon area, said business at his restaurant, which opened three years ago, has been slow since the onset of COVID. The lunch crowd has dropped off so he only opens for dinner.
Kornikh pointed out that many restaurants have shut down, and people who worked in kitchens have found other jobs. “It’s hard to find workers now.”
He said there are also fewer customers as there are no tourists, and with more people working from home, many of them are preparing more of their own meals. “Before COVID people had less time to spend in the kitchen…What happens after COVID who knows?”