Debbie Shahvar in the kitchen at Buttercup Diner. (FILE PHOTO)
Debbie Shahvar in the kitchen at Buttercup Diner. (FILE PHOTO)

‘A complete disaster’: Jewish food businesses crushed by coronavirus

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

All was going well for small business-owner Laura Athuil. The French native runs a storefront and bakery in San Francisco’s Lower Haight called Choux that sells French cream puffs. While there is some walk-in traffic, the business relied on tech company orders. Athuil’s cream puffs — which come in flavors like pistachio and salted caramel — were ordered on a regular basis in large amounts as perks for tech employees. Athuil had secured space for a second location in the Temescal district of Oakland and was planning to open it in the coming months.

Then came the coronavirus.

“Most of my business is catering,” she said. “I wish instead of canceling their orders [the tech companies] decided to buy gift cards to give to their employees.”

Laura Athuil of Choux Bakery (LAURA ATHUIL)
Laura Athuil of Choux Bakery (LAURA ATHUIL)

Athuil had to lay off her employees, something all food business owners are grappling with amid the uncertainty. Many catering companies are temporarily reinventing their offerings to include takeout or heat-at-home meals. Hugh Groman Group and Mangia Nosh are just two Jewish-owned caterers that fall into this category.

“This is a complete disaster for us,” said Athuil, “especially because what we do is so specific. It’s not like we’re making bread, which is something that everyone needs.”

Athuil has been thinking about using ingredients left in her bakery to make treats for hospital workers, giving her something positive to focus on since she can no longer think about her new location. (If anyone wants to contribute, they can do so at

“Not being able to make my customers happy is really hard,” she said, “so if I’m able to make treats for the nurses, that will give me a smile and make me feel useful.”

Napa Nuts, a family-owned business run by the sister and brother team of Bonnie and Schecky Miluso (profiled in this column in the fall), recently posted on Facebook that it had to lay off all of its employees. With the company supplying mostly restaurants and hotels, the closings have trickled down and orders are way down. “We want to bring back our staff as soon as possible,” they wrote.

The closing of Buttercup Diner, a family-owned diner with five East Bay locations, has meant temporarily laying off 250 employees.

“This is the worst possible news for the restaurant business, ever,” said Debbie Shahvar, who started Buttercup with her husband, David in 1988; they run the business now with their three adult children.

“Our staff is like our extended family, and a lot of them have worked for us 20 years plus, some over 25 years,” said son Ben Shahvar. “Even our newer staff members have been with us three to 10 years. We are a business, but we’re trying to institute a family culture, so it’s absolutely devasting.”

Sibling team Bonnie and Schecky Miluso sitting on boxes of figs and almonds in the Napa Nuts warehouse. (BRENT AUGUSTINE)
Sibling team Bonnie and Schecky Miluso sitting on boxes of figs and almonds in the Napa Nuts warehouse. (BRENT AUGUSTINE)

He said they thought about staying open and shifting to delivery and takeout, but with his parents in the vulnerable age group and his own personal health issues, the family felt they couldn’t make it work. Closing means most of their employees will suffer without any income source, yet staying open meant risking everyone’s health.

“Because we’ve been around since 1988, we have staff that’s been with us since then,” he said. “Ultimately we decided nothing is really worth somebody’s health.”

No matter what happens, Shahvar said, the new landscape is going to be different for small-business owners when the dust settles.

“People will have brand-new habits, as they are now cooking six to seven nights a week at home,” said Shahvar. “Sure, a lot of them will drift back, but it will be upon us to recognize how things will change, and to respond. We’ll have to wait to see what it is, or pioneer and create the trend.”

As I reported yesterday, Saul’s Deli in Berkeley lost its prospective buyer and has temporarily closed its doors. Owners Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman have established a GoFundMe to support their employees.

Grossman’s Noshery, which opened in Santa Rosa on March 19 with a takeout and delivery model, has also since closed.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."