Last year, Passover and Easter were an afterthought for many families. It was one of the first waves of lost business that crashed over local delis, candymakers, bakeries, and restaurants that cater to the holiday crowds. But in those first few weeks of the pandemic, most owners were too overwhelmed by our transformed world to dwell on it.
“The last thing I would ever do is complain that I’m not selling a ton of fish during this holiday,” Louis Barson of Hymie’s deli said last year. “It means nothing in the scheme of life.”
Glimmers of hope are on the horizon one (very long) year later, and extended families are coming together, providing a welcome boost to these businesses. Ahead of the spring holidays, we asked some operators to reflect on the hardships, lessons, and silver linings of the pandemic.
In 2020, second-generation deli owner Louis Barson had stocked up on gefilte fish after a shortage the year previous. Little did he know his Passover business would be around 25% of the norm.
This year, however, Barson has reason for optimism. A significant number of his staff has been vaccinated, and lately, he’s been walking the revamped dining room again. “There’s people for me to go around and schmooze to,” he says. The conversations usually starts with customers telling him they just got their second shot and it’s their first time eating inside a restaurant in a year.
Business has picked up accordingly. “The last two to three weeks we’ve actually taken names [for a wait-list]. From that 11-to-2 period, our dining room is filled to capacity at 50%,” Barson says. “It’s the new fabulous.”
Hymie’s has become more efficient in a year. Barson gutted the dining room last summer, when the Merion Station deli was takeout only, and designed it to be more pandemic-friendly. Low-slung booths now have taller backs, the still-closed pickle bar was moved and reduced by half, and deli cases were replaced with customer-facing grab-and-go cases. He added three more cashier positions to help field and prepare orders for delivery and curbside pickup.
“We kind of tried to make lemons into lemonade,” Barson says. Business is “not 100% of what it was a year and a half ago. It’s certainly 100%, literally 100%, more than it was one year ago.”
And he has the Passover slips to prove it: This year, Hymie’s had to put a hard stop on preorders because it doesn’t have the staff to handle more in addition to the counter service it will offer around the holiday. He’s encouraged. Some families ordered for eight people, even 10. “Those numbers tell the tale of where people’s mind-sets are.”
The hardest moment of the pandemic for Denise’s Delicacies co-owners Keshia Davis and Cynthia Benton was when they had to close up shop last March and send employees home. “It was devastating,” Benton says. “It definitely had an impact on us, a memorable impact.”
Easter isn’t the Swampoodle bakery’s biggest holiday (that’s Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day), but the loss of traffic was felt nonetheless.
The closure, however, did give Davis and Benton — who took over Denise’s from their aunt, Denise Gause, in 2018 — a chance to rethink their customer experience. “When we bought the business, it was literally like working on a fast-moving train that’s already between stations,” Davis says. “Trying to rebuild a train while moving, that’s hard.”
They set up a web- and app-based ordering system to let customers shop through their pound cakes, cookies, cupcakes, pies, and cheesecakes virtually. They deepened ties with delivery partners like Black and Mobile and Postmates.
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When Denise’s reopened quietly in early May, with social distancing policies and a two-customer limit inside, lines formed down the block. That’s nothing new for the bakery, but they had to work harder to manage the patience of those waiting. “There’s something about waiting outside that makes it so much worse an experience than waiting inside the store,” Davis says.
Business boomed at first, but as customers acclimated to pandemic life, Denise’s has seen the initial rush taper off — Benton estimates the bakery is bringing in 85% of its usual revenue. While they were able to bring back most of their staff, they have added costs: PPE, plastic barriers, security staffing, and increased costs for ingredients.
Benton and Davis, who have not yet been vaccinated, look forward to a future in which Denise’s can return to normal operations, alongside the improved customer service. Normally during holidays, “we literally have as many people in the store that can fit,” Benton adds. “That certainly affects our business.”
For the first couple months of the pandemic, Tova du Plessis dimmed the lights on her South Philly storefront, laying off her front-of-house staff. Instead, she reached hungry customers via the Babkamobile, a makeshift delivery van. “It was such a difficult time,” du Plessis remembers. Her husband was laid off and her daughter’s school went remote around the same time. “Financially speaking, I was so nervous and kind of feeling … despair.”
But out of that, she says, came a course-adjustment that’s put her bakery on better footing. The pressure forced her to execute on actions she had pondered — offering delivery and online ordering, adjusting hours, cutting out a linen service — but hadn’t bothered to make.
“I feel like I have a healthier business now, which is just crazy to think about,” du Plessis says. “I took my business from really struggling to eke out a profit margin to now being profitable.”
A year later, the slim East Passyunk shop has reopened with walk-up window service, a web-based sales platform, and a seasonal outdoor seating area. It’s back at pre-pandemic staffing levels. And it now offers next-day delivery as far as West Philly and Fairmount through a courier service called Habitat.
Essen’s Passover kits sold out again this year. They’ll help inform the small celebration du Plessis has at home; she can bring home chicken soup, matzo, and dessert. It’s the second year in which the Seder celebration is limited to just her nuclear family. It’s a big change from the Passovers she celebrated as a kid, when her mom prepared dinner over the course of a week, hand-grinding her own horseradish.
“We’re finding new meaning in it and we’re creating new traditions. In some ways, it’s been really nice,” she says.
Last year, Diane Nussbaum’s West Berlin, Camden County, bakery was reeling from the sudden loss of wedding and catering business, let alone Passover and Easter sales. Many of the large hotels and venues she relied on are still relatively quiet a year later, Nussbaum says, but couples are booking again. “I’ve been talking to brides for 2022 already, because all the [good] ’21 dates are pretty much all taken.”
To survive this time, Nussbaum adapted: She experimented more with vegan and gluten-free recipes; started offering babka, cinnamon rolls, and pizza dough; and fielded all manner of special requests, from gluten-free pumpkin challah to Hungarian walnut sponge cake. “You never know where this world will take you,” she says.
Passover and Easter orders were still sluggish this year, as group Seders and buffet brunches at large venues remain out of reach. But Nussbaum was looking forward to something else: She was hosting a gefilte fish-making party for her pod — her husband, son, daughter, and grandchildren — a couple of weekends prior.
“It’s been great that our family has been able to bond so much. We’ve been doing a lot of cooking and eating together. And I really love cooking, so I’ve been home cooking more,” Nussbaum reflected. “I have enjoyed some of that time, but then I worry about the business, too.”
Another positive she cites is that customers are spending more to get truly custom cakes. “I think people are just making more accommodations for being at home and willing to spend a little more for a cake.”
Since the FEMA-run mass vaccination center opened up in Philadelphia’s Convention Center in March, the Reading Terminal Market has seen an tremendous uptick in business, says Hershel’s owner Stephen Safern. “Most of the people that we’re seeing are so enthusiastic,” he says, “even though they just got their shot, they still feel comfortable enough to come across the street.”
It’s a positive sign, but Safern still remembers the shell-shocked looks on customers’ faces a year ago. That look has transformed over time, as have our surroundings. “Right now, there’s this piece of glass between all of us. We’re trying to protect ourselves, we’re trying to protect everybody else, but this glass is always around us,” he says. “It’s not who we were before this a year ago. That’s my hope, that we can go back to that.”
Market operations were still in flux this time last year, and Hershel’s bent over backward to deliver Passover orders to customers — the preponderance of whom didn’t feel safe coming into the market. Safern was late to his family’s small Seder celebration as a result. “It’s the sacrifice you make when you’re in this business.”
This year, Hershel’s is limiting delivery, instead encouraging customers to pick up curbside or at its stall. Hopefully that means Safern will be home in time for his own Passover, at which all guests will be vaccinated. But he recognizes that many families won’t yet be able to come together.
“There’s still going to be that shadow on our holiday. We can only hope that this time next year, this is all going to be in our past.”