Passover and Easter often go together, heralded by matzo and chocolate bunnies, seders and Easter egg hunts, brisket and brunch. This year, the eight-day stretch of Passover that starts on April 8 overlaps with much of Holy Week as well as Easter Sunday, on April 12.
But with stay-at-home orders and fears of infection looming large, this year’s spring holidays seem like an afterthought. It’s another blow to Philadelphia-area restaurants, bakeries, and candymakers, who usually get a healthy boost from festivities.
“Virtually nobody has thought about Passover,” said Louis Barson, owner of Hymie’s deli in Merion, which normally sells around 800 pounds of chopped liver alone during the holiday.
“I have not looked at the Passover clipboard in all honesty, but I would say we just have a dozen orders, something like that, where it would normally be hundreds,” Barson continued. “So it almost looks like How the Grinch Stole Christmas — can you say that for a Jewish holiday?”
At the William Penn Inn in Gwynedd, the story is similar. Between the day’s à la carte service and its annual Easter buffet — stocked with braised lamb, chuck roast, honey-cured Lancaster ham, grilled Australian lamb chops, and broiled filet mignon — the historic venue typically feeds about 2,500 people, said owner Peter Friedrich.
“I have a whole menu here that I'm now not going to be able to use, because we plan this stuff months out,” said Friedrich, who was in the process of crafting the inn’s takeout menu, which he hoped to launch this week.
For many retailers and restaurants, early-on investments for spring holiday business means money and food will go to waste.
“We’re going to throw away a lot of horseradish,” Barson anticipated. He had bought gefilte fish early this year, following a shortage last year. “It’s been brought in, paid for, and I’ll probably be sitting with most of it.”
Even grocery stores aren’t immune. At George’s Market at Dreshertown, co-owner Ana Endrigian said her store manager placed orders for this year’s Passover offerings after last year’s holiday. While the neighborhood market has seen an uptick in the shelf-stable goods shoppers have flocked to during this time, costly Passover ingredients and dinners are not moving the way they normally would.
“That’s how it goes,” Endrigian said. “We prepare for holidays, but this coronavirus? We weren’t prepared. It came out of nowhere.”
Randy Oakford, co-owner of Aunt Charlotte’s Candies in Merchantville, knew there was a chance coronavirus would affect Easter sales earlier this year, before workers started making chocolate eggs and bunnies. But she and sister Penny Trost, along with head candymaker Ryan Trost, went ahead with production and packaging.
“You had to — because if things hadn’t gone this way and we were able to be open, you can’t wait till the last minute to produce those items,” Oakford said.
Easter is one of the most profitable times of year for the 100-year-old sweets shop, which is now limited to mail orders, pickup, and local delivery. And while support from loyal customers has buoyed Oakford’s spirits — “We’ve really been bombarded with tons and tons of calls” — this year’s sales won’t come close to a normal year’s.
Part of that has to do with the experience of in-person shopping: Aunt Charlotte’s crew puts together Easter baskets and packages, and they carry Easter-themed ceramics and stuffed animals. “That’s the business you really can’t get by not having the walk-in part,” Oakford said.
So far, candy sales have been enough that they’ve been able to retain most of their employees. “We might only just make enough money to cover the payroll, not too much excess. But at least that’s something.”
Covering the basics is what Tova du Plessis, the James Beard-nominated baker behind Essen Bakery, hopes to do. After her catering and wholesale business “basically disappeared within a few days … it was enough of a loss where I didn’t know how I would continue to pay everyone and cover everything,” she said.
Du Plessis had to lay off about half her staff and more or less shutter her South Philly storefront, unplugging the appliances and baking instead in a more affordable kitchen outside the city. (It’s occasionally open for pickup orders.)
The remaining Essen crew is delivering babka, rugelach, bagels, and more a few days a week downtown. For Passover, they’ll deliver sweet and savory kits with matzo and macaroons, chicken soup and chopped liver.
“What we’re bringing in will help me get through, I think,” du Plessis said, “as long as we keep getting a stable business.”
For West Berlin bakery owner Diane Nussbaum, much of the spring-holiday business came from caterers and hotels hosting group seders and Easter gatherings. “All of those are canceled,” she said.
Her shop, Diane’s Patisserie, mostly deals in special-occasion cakes for birthdays, weddings, baby showers, and bar/bat mitzvahs. With such celebrations on hold indefinitely, “it’s rough, really rough,” Nussbaum said. For Passover and Easter, she’s encouraging her usual clients to offer takeout desserts and suggesting individuals order 8-inch cakes for their households.
“I figured, people are still going to want dessert. They might be doing virtual parties at home, they may be only having small groups, three or four people at their house," she said, adding that her family was contemplating having a Zoom Passover seder. “I want people to be to eat some sugar and be happy.”
Robert Passio, owner of Giunta’s Prime Shop in Reading Terminal Market, was predicting that he’d get more orders for lesser portions of meat — half a leg of lamb instead of a whole or smaller briskets instead of two 10-pounders — for smaller-than-usual gatherings.
Passio’s family usually gathers for Easter, but this year, it’ll just be him, his wife, his daughter, and her fiance. “We’re going from a dinner of, say, 18, to a dinner of maybe four," he said.
Some stalls over in the market from Giunta’s, at Hershel’s East Side Deli, owner Stephen Safern ruminated on the reduced crowd he was expecting at his own Passover seder, as well as the plight of what he and his colleagues are seeing.
“Everybody I know who’s in the restaurant business, if you’re not at least 50% down — and that would probably be in the high end — most of us are 75% to 90% off. There’s a lot of places that had to shut their doors to save on the cost of employees,” Safern said. “It’s tough because you’re dealing with families. I have four kids who work for me that have two kids each. … How do you tell them to go on unemployment and not be able to pay their bills?
“There’s so much tragedy. And you know, Passover is about tragedy,” he continued.
Safern reflected on what his parents, who survived the Holocaust, had endured. “People have lived through much worse. People have horror stories that they live through every day that are worse than what we’re dealing with now.