I own a kosher restaurant. The community is rallying around us.
“How are you guys doing?”
It’s a question I get asked a lot lately. It’s not an unusual question during a pandemic. But I’m a small business owner. My wife and I own and operate Holy Chow, Washington, D.C.’s only certified glatt kosher Chinese restaurant. In normal times, we are one of the handful of kosher restaurants in the DC area. These aren’t normal times. With David Chu’s Chinese Bistro in Baltimore temporarily closed because of coronavirus, we’re now the only kosher Chinese place between Atlanta and New Jersey that’s currently open for business.
So when people ask me how I’m doing, they’re usually not just asking about me personally. What they’re really interested in knowing is how “the store” is doing. I’m not offended; if the shoe were on the other foot, I’d be asking them the same thing. The truth is, to our community, the success and financial health of our local kosher food establishments are of much greater concern than that of the law offices, accounting firms or dental practices in the area. After all, everyone needs to eat.
We all need to go to the dentist every few months, too, and I’d imagine at some point in your life, you’ll need to acquire the services of an attorney or an accountant. But none of these things are required to survive on a daily basis. And there will never be a shortage of lawyers, accountants or dentists. But unless you’re living in NYC or Israel, kosher restaurants aren’t exactly a dime a dozen.
So when people ask me “How are you doing?” what they’re really asking is, “How are we doing?” and by “we” they mean “we as a community.”
Now, I may be a little biased. But there’s no question in my mind that the strength and viability of a Jewish community is tied to the number of kosher food establishments it’s able to support. While the number of observant Jewish households, synagogues and day schools all certainly contribute to the vibrancy and viability of a Jewish community, it’s the number of kosher food establishments that transform those communities from being just places where people live into destinations that people also want to visit. After all, if you’re gonna shell out thousands of dollars to enjoy some much deserved time away from work with the family, the last thing you want is to eat tuna fish and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and dinner every day.
So where does that leave us today? My restaurant has actually been fairing pretty well so far. Given the fact that we’ve been strictly takeout and delivery from the start, our day-to-day routine hasn’t really changed all that much. There have been a few times where a shipment of chicken has been delayed, or we weren’t able to get a certain cut of meat for a while. More recently, one of our major suppliers laid off half their staff and cut their hours of operation by almost 40%, which means they don’t deliver as often as they used to. But none of this has been particularly earth-shattering for us — yet.
There are a number of factors that I feel have allowed our restaurant to weather the storm better than most others up until this point, some of which I don’t see changing any time soon while others could turn the tides drastically with very little notice.
And when you consider the number of people who are now working from home, and all of the college and seminary students who returned from their universities and yeshivas in Israel, and then add in all of the K-12 students who are sitting at home day-after-day and now within walking distance of our store, it doesn’t take a mathematician to calculate how captive an audience we currently have.
And with so many college kids home from school and so many others out of work, we now have our pick of drivers, which has enabled us to drastically scale up our delivery operations at precisely the right time, now that our catering sales are non-existent. Not only has this allowed us to expand our customer base and service many at-risk individuals that normally wouldn’t fall within our delivery radius, but it has also given us the opportunity to provide a much-needed cash infusion to those community members who’ve seen their incomes reduced significantly or eliminated altogether.
But that could change at any second. Literally.
I’ve already noticed several red flags that could potentially result in my lifelong dream coming apart at the seams. Over the last few weeks, we’ve lost several employees who grew too concerned about exposure to the coronavirus and decided to self-quarantine at home. There’s also the possibility that one day, I get a call and find out one of our employees actually tests positive for the virus. In that case, all bets are off.
Catering is another big unknown. So far, we’ve been able to offset most of the losses incurred from the drop in catering revenue with a huge increase in deliveries. But I don’t see that trend continuing long term. In past years, we’ve been able to count on getting a fair amount of catering orders from all of the schools up north that come down here for their annual trip to our nation’s capital, and we’ve always been able to capitalize on all of the tourism DC tends to get during the summer months. Not this year.
Another concern is with respect to our customers: Prepared food can be quite expensive compared to what you can make for yourself at home. If people are out of work much longer, they’re going to think twice about buying takeout.
And possible disruptions in our supply chain are a big worry. There are reports of major meat and poultry suppliers and processing plants significantly scaling back operations and shuttering locations all across the country. Even if demand for our services remained consistent, we couldn’t make any money without the raw ingredients to produce the food.
These are just some of the things that keep me up at night.
But I don’t want to dwell on the negative. While there are many things I can’t control, there are also many that I can. I can also choose how I deal with each of the challenges that I’ve already faced, and the ones that I’ll undoubtedly have to overcome in the not too distant future while both appreciating how blessed I truly am and also being thankful for what I have and what I’ve been able to accomplish so far.
There have been overtures by individuals to lend a helping hand. And there’s been solidarity between kosher food establishments, too, whether it’s Larry Dekelbaum of Shalom Kosher making additional freezer or refrigeration space available to us for food storage or Josh Katz at Ben Yehuda Pizza picking up extra supplies at Restaurant Depot so we don’t have to make the trip ourselves.
We’ve also done our share to pay it forward, making our kitchen facilities available to the Brooklyn Sandwich Company to prepare food while their regular digs at Char Bar in DC were being cleaned for Passover, as well as offering the services of our delivery drivers to several of the other kosher food establishments in the area.
The local synagogues, days schools and dozens of Jewish organizations, including the Vaad of Greater Washington have been extremely supportive and regularly send out email reminders to members of the DC Jewish community urging them to frequent as many of the kosher food establishments as they can.
The gratitude, warmth, generosity and support, both moral and financial, that the DC community has shown us during these trying times has brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. Seeing how so many people have pooled together and selflessly worked to try and make everyone’s lives as “normal” as possible given the unusual circumstances the world is now facing gives me hope for the future.
For those of you trying to stay sane during this crazy new reality, I ask that you keep three very important things in mind: No man is an island. There’s strength in numbers. And we’re all in this together.
Ami Schreiber is the owner of Holy Chow, located minutes from downtown Washington DC. It is the area’s only certified glatt kosher Chinese restaurant. It opened its doors back in March of 2018, and has been serving residents and visitors in and around our nation’s capital ever since. Offering a huge variety of all the classic Chinese dishes as well a few specialties of their own, you’re guaranteed to find something for everyone. All of the menu items are 100% MSG free and there are plenty of vegetarian and gluten free options as well.