Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf going treif isn’t the biggest kosher news out of Los Angeles. The biggest story is how our community is keeping its local kosher establishments in business.
Coffee Bean was a convenient kosher coffee chain. Losing it will have some impact, especially those looking for a quick kosher coffee break. It may have a larger impact on those in smaller communities. However, the kosher-conscious community of Los Angeles never relied on Coffee Bean for kosher food or supporting Jewish life. We never ordered from the Coffee Bean for event catering, such as a bris, conference, board meeting or shivas. I never took my wife there for date night or a celebratory dinner. While I met people there for coffee meetings around town, if it was a lunch meeting we went elsewhere.
I predict that once dine-in service reopens in Los Angeles, Coffee Bean will again be packed by a diverse group of people on laptops trying to get into the entertainment business. Those who keep kosher will still grab a coffee or cappuccino and maybe a quick meeting. So while Coffee Bean will hopefully live to brew another day, the unfolding story that is truly newsworthy and inspiring is how our local Kosher restaurant scene is managing to stay in business.
From the moment the crisis began and restaurants were forced to close dine-in service, local kosher conscious Angelenos looked for ways to help. A Facebook group, “People supporting Kosher restaurants, caterers & event planners in crisis” popped up and quickly attracted over 1,900 members. Their motto, “Let’s support these local businesses, so that they are still around after the pandemic is over.”
I spoke with the owners of four restaurants and two caterers that are open for takeout to find out how they are able to stay in business. They all said they would have folded if they had not seen the continuous and generous support from the community. Even though they are dedicated to making a living, and helping their employees support their families, these business owners would not have been able to weather this storm. One popular fast-food restaurateur told me, “If I were a regular non-kosher, store-front place somewhere else in LA, I wouldn’t stand a chance.”
Why has the community rallied so strongly behind these businesses? Local kosher places have developed a loyal fan base. When you stop in for lunch or dinner you are chatting with the owner. They provide a personal touch when catering local family celebrations or shiva meals. When you know the person who is delivering the food, and they stand behind their order, it builds a relationship that can be enduring. It was not uncommon for the owner themselves to deliver the food and oversee the presentation.
Many of the kosher places still in business were also known for their generosity and community involvement long before the crisis hit. Synagogues, youth groups, and schools often asked them for gift cards for raffles, donations for programs, and discounts on catering orders. During our eleven years running Jewish nonprofits in Los Angeles we have experienced the kindness of many of the restaurant’s owners every year as I’m sure many other groups did as well. These businesses never said “no” to a donation request.
Lastly, I believe in the fundamental Jewish principle of middah k’neged middah, measure for measure. How we deal with others is how we ourselves will be treated. Middah k’neged middah is a Divine accounting of our world, and the merits that we accrue through our righteous deeds are there for us in times of need. Many of these kosher restaurants that are managing to stay open now were known for outsized chesed (loving kindness) to our community’s most disadvantaged. The most popular restaurants and the caterers on Pico’s “Kosher Strip” are known for giving away food on Fridays to those in need, and giving food to the homeless people who wander in every single day.
Hours before Passover, I heard of someone with no food for Passover except one box of matzah. I immediately called two kosher caterers that I thought might still be open handling deliveries. I got a call back from one and then the next. Within an hour, one of our synagogue volunteers was able to pick up a box containing enough food for several days and deliver it to this person in need. The owners took joy in knowing they have been able to help people in need. As a rabbi in the community, I have never been turned down when I called one of our kosher restaurants and asked for food for someone in need.
Hopefully the crisis will end soon. We pray and hope that our communal life will return quickly. In the meantime, it’s our responsibility to support one another as best we can. This includes supporting our local kosher food establishments and repaying their kindness over the years, with our business this year.
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is the Deanna and Allen Alevy Family Rabbi in Community Outreach at Pico Shul and Shabbat Tent