Jesse Bloom leading a workshop in 2016. (Photo/Stephen Flynn)
Jesse Bloom leading a workshop in 2016. (Photo/Stephen Flynn)

For local Jewish food businesses, necessity is the mother of reinvention

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

Earlier this month, Jesse Bloom was supposed to cook two community seders in one week. Between Walnut Creek’s Congregation B’nai Tikvah and Piedmont’s Kehilla Community Synagogue, he would have fed around 275 people.

Those were just two of the gigs on his calendar that were canceled within a matter of days.

“All of a sudden, I didn’t have a business anymore,” he said. “I had lost four events in the three weeks preceding the seders. I lost 100 percent of my business for the foreseeable future, so I’ve been actively trying to re-create myself from a business perspective.”

The word “pivot” has become a catchword in the current moment, as businesses try to survive the coronavirus pandemic. Food businesses have been especially hard-hit.

Bloom makes his living catering and cooking primarily at retreats and festivals, everything from Wilderness Torah’s Sukkot on the Farm to the camps at Burning Man, where he is one of several chefs cooking for hundreds of people. He also does smaller dinner party experiences, where participants cook together and “have a transformational experience of connecting around the universal language of food,” he said.

By March 10, he could see where things were heading. And then he got sick. He doesn’t know if it was Covid-19 since he couldn’t get tested (he doesn’t think it was). But he had a lot of time to be home and think.

He lives in a tiny apartment, where he began to visualize how he could turn his living room into a mini studio to make videos of himself teaching cooking lessons.

On April 7, he taught a class on how to make four Sephardic dishes for the seder.

“I began thinking about teaching online classes and putting them on Facebook Live,” he said. “When I first started doing them, it wasn’t as saturated as it is now. I don’t know anyone who isn’t Zoom-saturated at this point.”

Bloom is asking for donations from people who view his online classes, and he is devising new ones on the fly. When someone he knows posted on Facebook that he was having a hard time coming up with healthy meal ideas for himself and his daughter, Bloom responded with a course on kitchen basics. He’s also thinking of offering a team-building exercise for co-workers at home, where they make the same lunch together using the same ingredients they’ve bought ahead of time.

“I don’t know where it’s going,” he admitted about his business. “It’s not fun to lose all that income, but part of me is enjoying reinventing myself and my career. If I’m able to do that in a way that actually reaches and nourishes more people, and it’s more sustainable for me, well, there’s a hope and a prayer embedded in the pivot.”

The online cooking idea also appealed to Avital Ungar of Avital Tours. In normal times, she offers culinary tours in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. When all of the restaurants closed for dine-in service, she started offering remote team-building culinary experiences, or “chefinars,” and workshops taught by mixologists.

Ungar sees it as a win-win: She’s able to pay participating chefs who might otherwise be out of work, and she can still make a profit for her company, which will remain out of service as long as restaurants remain closed.

a man in chef's whites looks over a spread of baked goods
Isaac Yosef is one of the co-owners of Frena, a kosher Israeli bakery in S.F. (Photo/Cathleen Maclearie)

Frena, San Francisco’s kosher bakery, also had to get creative after shutting its doors to walk-in business. Before Passover, the bakery notified customers with messages on Facebook that it was switching to delivery only, then drove its baked goods throughout the Bay Area, making planned stops at synagogues and Chabad houses.

When she was first launching her business, Boichik Bagels’ owner Emily Winston envisioned a delivery service, maybe even a subscription plan, around the Bay. But when commercial space became available in Berkeley at the site of the original Noah’s Bagels, she felt she couldn’t say no. She put her early ideas on hold because the shop was too small to stage deliveries and do wholesale accounts.

Now that sales are down, she is operating a takeout system where customers come to the parking lot to pick up their orders of bagels and schmears. Delivery in the East Bay started last week, and other Bay Area locations are being added soon, she said.

“I have a lot of customers who don’t want to leave the house at all,” she said.

Also, her bagels and spreads are now available at Berkeley Bowl West.

“It’s funny how it turned back into my original plan, in a way,” Winston said. “I had to redesign my whole business model in the past few weeks.”

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."