A bicyclist peers through a window at Smitten ice cream in San Francisco, Nov. 22, 2023. The chain's Valencia Street location was vandalized with pro-Palestinian graffiti the month before. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
A bicyclist peers through a window at Smitten ice cream in San Francisco, Nov. 22, 2023. The chain's Valencia Street location was vandalized with pro-Palestinian graffiti the month before. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

‘We’re just a bagel shop’: Local Jewish and Israeli restaurateurs targeted over Gaza war

“Is the owner a Zionist?”

It’s not a question most restaurant workers expect when they answer the phone. But since Oct. 7, it has become more common at Bay Area restaurants owned by American or Israeli Jews.

“Clearly an activist was trying to round up knowledge,” said one owner, who requested anonymity to protect their business. “I’m sure they weren’t calling to invite me to a gathering.”

The caller hung up before the employee could offer to take a message.

“I’m hesitant to even identify openly as Jewish when I’m in my restaurant,” the owner acknowledged to J. “Not that I’d lie about it if asked directly. But it’s just not something I feel will be beneficial for me or my business if I offer it up proactively in a public way.”

These are the calculations going through the minds of some restaurant owners right now as pro-Palestinian activists force politics into apolitical areas in the wake of the Oct. 7 massacre and subsequent Israel-Hamas war.

San Francisco’s Smitten Ice Cream shop, owned by Jewish entrepreneur Robyn Sue Fisher, was heavily damaged and vandalized with pro-Palestinian graffiti in October. And a confrontation over anti-Israel and anti-Zionist graffiti in a bathroom at Farley’s East, an Oakland coffee shop, went viral in December. (The anonymous restaurant owner quoted above said they met with their staff to talk specifically about the Farley’s incident and how it could have been handled differently.)

In addition to phone calls and seemingly politically motivated negative online reviews, local business owners have felt pressured to take a stand on the war. But even those who make no statement are finding their businesses attacked online.

“We’re just a bagel shop. We’re not setting any political or international agendas here,” said Emily Winston, owner of Boichik Bagels, who has been harassed on Instagram for remaining silent about the war.

RELATED: Fliers calling for boycott of Israeli and Jewish restaurants posted in San Francisco

Other Jewish owners, like Samantha Ramey, who with her husband owns Estero Cafe in Valley Ford and Americana in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa, reported a negative review on Yelp that not only criticized the food but added that “the owners are outspoken Zionists.”

While Ramey has never made a statement about the conflict, the couple’s restaurants have mezuzahs on the doors.

Food industry entrepreneurs are also finding that when they do say something, it’s generally not the right thing.

One snack food company owner, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her business, told J. that after posting “I Stand With Israel” on Instagram right after the Oct. 7 attack, she watched as at least 50 people unfollowed the account.

Mica Talmor, an Israeli native who opened the California-Israeli restaurant Pomella in Oakland in March 2020, has always used a weekly newsletter to connect with customers. It’s been a vehicle for highlighting the weekly dessert special or featuring employees with birthdays.

Reeling after Oct. 7, Talmor felt compelled to speak out.

A peace activist since she was young, she expressed solidarity with the Israeli people, including the soldiers and the volunteers stepping up to help. Israel had not entered Gaza at that point, and yet numerous emails came back, accusing her of supporting ethnic cleansing.

“Thank you for sharing where you stand,” one letter read. “My family, friends and I cannot support a business that supports genocide against the Palestinian people. I’ll be unsubscribing and will not patronize your restaurant again.”

That was only the beginning.

To another newsletter, more customers responded to say she’d lost their business after she gave her views of the conflict.

Mica Talmor, owner of Pomella in Oakland. (Photo/Courtesy)
Mica Talmor, owner of Pomella in Oakland. (Photo/Courtesy)

“I don’t feel I was making a stand,” Talmor said. “This conflict is not black and white. It’s very complicated for me, even though I’ve lived it for most of my life.”

Clearly, some customers felt otherwise.

Talmor’s restaurant has also fielded “Is the owner a Zionist?” calls. She has also received negative online reviews since Oct. 7 that were political in nature.

Because she feels strongly that the war can’t be explained in social media posts, Talmor has chosen to have her marketing manager do all of the posting for the restaurant, largely for her own self-preservation so she can avoid hurtful comments.

“We’re a food business. We’re not in charge of making policy in the Middle East,” she said. “It’s hard enough to run a business.”

On the positive side, Talmor said the majority of her customers have rallied behind her, asking about her family members in Israel, sending messages of support and stopping in just to ask how she has been doing.

Another San Francisco food business owner who asked to remain anonymous to protect his business has an Israeli first and last name. He was recently questioned about his views on the war by a longtime client, and then lost a lucrative potential deal when he refused to answer.

“I will not work with anyone who automatically assumes that due to my name I’m suddenly the global representative for all Jews and the Israeli government,” he said. “Losing a piece of business because of ignorance pales in comparison to what all humans in Israel and Gaza are going through right now. I wish for the total annihilation of the terrorists. I weep and pray for the Gazans caught in the middle. And I stand with Israel.”

Small Bites

The whimsical mural that features Stars of David formed out of bacon strips will soon be no more.

We learned from an Instagram post late last month that after 45 years, Homemade Cafe owner Collin Doran was closing his Berkeley breakfast and lunch spot on the corner of Dwight Way and Sacramento Avenue. Its final day of business was Jan. 1.

“In today’s economics, running a small, locally-owned, full service restaurant that serves homemade food out of quality ingredients, at relatively reasonable and affordable prices, while valuing its employees and refusing to pay less than a living wage is apparently not possible,” Doran said in a statement.

J. was among many publications that wrote about Doran in the summer, after Homemade began offering its “Everybody Eats” initiative that allowed customers to pay it forward and buy a hot breakfast for someone in need.

Doran said at the time that he was inspired by his Jewish grandfather, who taught him never to look down on anyone.

“Homemade has been a transformative journey,” Doran said in his goodbye statement. “All the people I’ve met and all the relationships I’ve had these past 25 years have been the most rewarding and valued things I could have ever, possibly had.”

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."