Sari Cohen loves living in Pittsburgh and would love to see its Jewish community grow — she just wishes the city’s kosher landscape was a little different.
Compared to New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago, Pittsburgh doesn’t have many kosher restaurants. And while it’s nice to dine at a restaurant once in a while, the biggest concern, Cohen said, is the lack of kosher takeout options. About twice a month, Cohen orders food for Shabbat from one of five kosher caterers in the area. She and her family enjoy the dishes and would order more frequently if there were more options, she said.
“We’re a lactose-intolerant family, so there’s not a lot of Milky Way we can have,” Cohen said.
Squirrel Hill resident Ilana Schwarcz has similar concerns. “Kosher takeout in Pittsburgh is great,” she said, “but limited.”
Schwarcz has long supported the city’s kosher caterers. What has changed since the start of the pandemic, however, are Schwarcz’s shopping habits.
“We are ordering five times more than at the start of the pandemic,” she said. “We’re so busy with work, school, virtual learning and house maintenance – it’s a relief to have a healthy meal that we don’t have to cook.”
The rise in Schwarcz purchases is in line with national trends.
In early spring 2021, consumers of all age groups were ordering more takeout and dinner delivery, according to the National Restaurant Association.
The pandemic, busy lifestyles and the desire for “convenient alternatives to home cooking” have caused global revenues in the online food delivery segment to nearly double since 2017, according to Statista, a company that tracks data from consumers. consumers.
Pittsburgh kosher caterers agreed shopping habits have changed since March 2020, but cited staffing issues and an increase in costs as significant impediments to their operations.
Aryeh Markovic, co-owner of Murray Avenue Kosher, described how, due to a lack of employees on the day he spoke with the Chronicle, he and three staff members were continually running around the store’s shelves, helping customers to check and manage a myriad of other responsibilities. .
In addition to spurring the “great resignation,” the pandemic has reshaped the way business is conducted, Markovic explained.
At first, typical catering events dried up during the quarantine, but even now – almost two years after March 2020 – parties, office meetings, even funerals and shivas, are smaller than they seem. were before the pandemic, Markovic said.
While there has been a decrease in attendance at in-person catered events, the availability and cost of items has also changed.
“It’s hard to get products,” Markovic said. “Prices are constantly rising on us, unfortunately, and we are doing our best; that’s all we can do.
Moishe Siebzener of Creative Kosher Catering said he also faced supply chain issues.
“Every time we walk into a store, we see the prices go up,” he said.
In a Feb. 3 report, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations confirmed that food prices in January hit their highest level in a decade.
Siebzener said rising prices are just one factor he and Deena Ross of Deena’s Dishes have had to deal with.
“We had to reinvent ourselves,” he said. “We had to be more online and had to sell to the community on a different scale.”
Before the pandemic, Siebzener and Ross operated Shabbox, a Squirrel Hill-based store stocked with Shabbat-ready takeout.
However, staffing the store became difficult, and Siebzener and Ross closed the operation. Siebzener said they would consider opening Shabbox again under the right circumstances, but their business has changed so much since March 2020. “We really do make to order,” he said. “We don’t want to end up with leftovers.
When Shabbox was open, anything that didn’t sell ended up like Siebzener and Ross’ Shabbat meals. Now that the store is closed and the duo have a better idea of what to cook each week, there are fewer leftovers — which has its pros and cons, Siebzener said.
Judah Cowen, owner of Elegant Edge Catering, said the pandemic has forced his business to shift from large-scale catering to take-out and then back to catering, while managing the economy and the interests of the community.
When the pandemic began in March 2020, Elegant Edge began offering Shabbat takeout.
Meals were often themed and the menu changed weekly.
“It was very heartwarming to see people supporting the business – and it kept us going strong knowing we had what it took to deliver – despite the fact that all of our events had been cancelled,” said Cowen.
But as the pandemic continued and personnel issues plagued Elegant Edge, Cowen was forced to adapt.
“The thing that supported the business the least had to go,” he said.
Cowen said he was still getting calls from customers asking for takeout.
“If I had unlimited staff I would probably continue, but I have to prioritize what’s best,” he said, noting that he had greater demand for event catering and food on university campuses.
Takeout is offered a la carte, Cowen said, and to keep prices reasonable, “you need to have high volume.”
Although Elegant Edge no longer offers take-out, Cowen isn’t opposed to bringing it back.
“We’ll try to offer it when we can, on a pop-up basis, and if we see there’s high demand, maybe we’ll look into a more permanent option,” he said.
There are about 49,200 Jewish adults and children, comprising about 26,800 households, in Pittsburgh, according to the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study. About 15% of Jewish adults in Pittsburgh have a kosher home. By comparison, Miami — which has more than 100 kosher restaurants and seven kosher takeout locations, according to Kosher Miami — has about 123,200 Jews and 55,700 Jewish households, with about 20% of households keeping a kosher home, according to the 2014 Greater Miami Jewish Federation Population Study.
The Jewish population of Pittsburgh and Miami pales in comparison to New York, and its eight counties served by the UJA Federation of New York, which have more Jews than the Jewish populations of the metropolitan areas of Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, DC combined. About 1,538,000 Jews live in 694,000 Jewish households, with about 18 percent non-Orthodox and 93 percent Orthodox keeping a kosher home, according to the 2011 New York Jewish Community Study.
Cowen knows some Pittsburghers want more kosher takeout options, “but it’s not like we’re sitting in New York or Miami,” he said. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be contacted at [email protected]