New York's Best Israeli Restaurants Survived Covid-19. Here's How They Did It

Chefs Eyal Shani and Einat Admony are full of praise for how city authorities are helping their eateries survive the pandemic, in contrast to what they say is a raw deal being served up to their counterparts in Israel

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York
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Customers eating in the new outdoor dining section at 12 Chairs Cafe in SoHo, New York, August 2020.
Customers eating in the new outdoor dining section at 12 Chairs Cafe in SoHo, New York, August 2020. Credit: Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York

NEW YORK – “It’s like you’re sitting in Tel Aviv,” says Sammy Shamaev, surveying the scene as masked waiters bring classic Israeli dishes to diners outside his 12 Chairs Cafe on a beautiful summer’s day.

But those similarities don’t extend beyond the seasonal street setup. The manager of the popular SoHo eatery tells Haaretz that the experiences of restaurateurs coping with COVID-19 restrictions in New York and Israel are like “night and day.” In New York, he says, “the government mobilized and helped, and is still helping,” whereas his counterparts back home in Israel didn’t receive anything like that treatment.

After three months in which they were unable to let customers eat on the premises, New York’s restaurants finally got the all-clear to reopen their doors on June 22 – albeit with restrictions. They were allowed to offer outdoor seating, with permission to implement seating on sidewalks and curbsides as long as social distancing and hygiene guidelines were followed.

Indoor dining was supposed to follow on July 20, but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio eventually decided to hold off, alarmed by the uptick in cases in states that had rushed to reopen. Authorities have refused to say when indoor dining will resume in the Big Apple, leaving restaurant owners frustrated and wondering why, unlike their peers elsewhere in the state, they’re still being restrictied to outdoor service only.

Shamaev isn’t complaining, though, and instead praises the outdoor initiative. “At first we thought it wasn’t going to help, that there wouldn’t be enough tables outside,” he says. “But since we reopened, everything is going very well – not like before the coronavirus, but better than not working at all.”

Sammy Shamaev, right, with co-workers outside 12 Chairs Cafe in SoHo, New York.Credit: Danielle Ziri

It’s in sharp contrast to Israel, where restaurant owners are in the streets for another reason: demonstrating against the government’s handling of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

New York eateries didn’t just get help with outdoor seating, either. They also received significant financial loans, amounting in some cases to hundreds of thousands of dollars, in an arrangement known as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

Under the program, restaurants can actually turn their loan into a grant if they spend 60 percent of the funds on workers salaries and hiring staff back to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2020.

The big difference

Israeli chef Einat Admony, who owns the popular Balaboosta restaurant in the West Village, says the PPP loan allowed her eatery to function.

“If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know if Balaboosta would have ever reopened,” she admits.

Admony, who New York foodies follow religiously, also owns Taim, a chain of six falafel joints (two of which are temporarily closed). The remaining four have been functioning as delivery and pick up only.

Chef Einat Admony outside her Balaboosta restaurant in New York's West Village, August 2020.Credit: Danielle Ziri

In February, just before the pandemic struck, Admony decided to shutter her couscous restaurant, Kish-Kash, after just two years of operation, for which she’s still paying expenses. Although she’s worried about the coming months and what it might mean for Balaboosta if indoor dining isn’t back on the menu, her situation is still better than the one facing her compatriots back home, she believes.

Restaurateurs in Israel slammed the government for what they saw as impossible conditions being asked of them to reopen in May. They were also angered by the authorities’ sudden demand that they shutter as the second coronavirus wave hit the country that month. Some establishments threatened to rebel and remain open, forcing the government to back down and allow them to stay open with restrictions.

“Here in Israel, my people are going to save me,” says celebrity chef Eyal Shani, who owns restaurants in New York and Tel Aviv, including the popular Miznon pita chain. “In the United States, it’s the government that’s going to save me. That’s a big difference,” he observes.

Shani, who’s currently in Israel, has been attending the protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “In Israel, the government is doing everything to scare people away from coming to restaurants,” the chef says. “They’re painting us as this poisonous place, and that anyone who steps foot in there will have terrible things happen to them,” he tells Haaretz in a phone interview.

Shani also received PPP loans for his three New York restaurants: Miznon North on the Upper West Side; Miznon – Chelsea Market; and HaSalon in Hell’s Kitchen.

While Miznon North is able to offer outdoor seating on an upstairs terrace and sidewalk, the Chelsea Market location can only offer delivery and pick-up as it’s situated within a food hall. HaSalon remains closed, since its entire experience is built around being inside: the venue turns into a nightclub after 10 P.M. and patrons dance on the tables they previously ate at.

Chef Eyal Shani at Miznon in New York in pre-coronavirus times.Credit: Danielle Ziri

‘Not easy, but possible’

New York City boasts some 27,000 restaurants and many rushed to reopen to diners in June. “Restaurants are the backbone of New York City’s neighborhood culture, and they’ve done their part in slowing the spread of COVID-19,” de Blasio said at the time. “It’s our city’s turn to help them reopen safely and responsibly.”

Unlike the Israeli government, Shani says, the New York authorities understood the importance of helping the restaurants reopen, in order to restore people’s sense of normalcy. Without restaurants, he says, “the city loses its purpose.”

Delivery, the three restaurateurs agree, is not what will keep their businesses afloat. But as Shamaev puts it, “In New York, the delivery culture is much more significant than in Israel. I asked my friends [in Israel] if delivery is enough for them, and they said it’s not enough to cover anything,” he says. “I don’t know what to tell them – perhaps, move to New York and open restaurants?”

There’s no question the restaurant trade suffered greatly both in Israel and New York after the lockdown began in March. According to the Toast restaurant management platform, the average revenue for New York City restaurants is down 67.1 percent so far this month compared to the same period in 2019.

And the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a nonprofit representing restaurants and nightlife establishments, said that 83 percent of businesses could not pay full rent in July, while 37 percent reported paying no rent at all.

In light of these difficulties, news of shuttering NYC restaurants has become a weekly phenomenon. However, as reported in Eater, there’s no official city or state organization keeping track of closures in real time, making it difficult to assess the true magnitude of the pandemic for the industry.

In Israel, Ontopo – a company that manages seating and takeout orders for hundreds of restaurants – said recently that the number of patrons frequenting eateries last month plunged by 66 percent in comparison to the same period last year. The Bank of Israel also reported that spending at restaurants and cafés had dropped 25 percent compared to pre-lockdown levels.

The outdoor dining space at Balaboosta in the West Village.Credit: Danielle Ziri

Over recent months, many New York restaurants have had to get creative in order to survive: Michelin-starred establishments started offering delivery and some venues even decided to function as markets, selling vegetables as well as essentials like flour or toilet paper.

Some of the city’s best-known Israeli eateries remain closed for in-house dining. These include ZiZi, which relocated from Williamsburg to Chelsea last September; Erez Komarovsky’s Mint Kitchen; and Meir Adoni’s Nur. Others, like Barbounia, Nish Nush and Lamalo, have taken advantage of the outdoor seating options and joined Balaboosta and 12 Chairs in reopening.

Admony believes every restaurant can find creative ways to survive, even with the current restrictions.

“You have to arrange your numbers: buy less food, bring in less workers – you need to reinvent yourself,” she says. “You cannot do the same thing you’ve been doing. The entire world is changing.”

At Balaboosta, for instance, Admony released a line of jarred products for delivery. Her pantry essentials include shakshuka tomato sauce (just add eggs), homemade granola, raw tahini, harissa, preserved lemon, labaneh cheese and aioli.

“This coronavirus is not going away for a long time and people will order more food at home,” she explains. “The question is, how do you reinvent yourself? There are ways to do it.

“I spoke to a chef in Israel who said she decided not to open. I understand her,” Admony continues. “If you have a good rent and you’re not afraid and can afford to stay – great, maintain your principles. But when you don’t have this leverage, you have to think: How do I develop something that better fits today’s world? It’s not easy, but possible.”

Some of the jarred products Einat Admony has started making and selling at Balaboosta. Just add eggs for instant shakshuka.Credit: Danielle Ziri

Responding in style

As New Yorkers enjoy the comparatively novel (no pun intended) concept of outdoor city dining, authorities have already announced that the program will return next summer, regardless of whether there’s another coronavirus crisis.

Establishments in turn have responded to the challenge in style – literally – decorating their new outdoor spaces using plants, painted wooden panels, fairy lights and canopies. 12 Chairs, for instance, has set up a canopied outdoor area, hosting fewer than a dozen socially distanced tables for its diners.

Yet during the months when the city was in lockdown, Shamaev wasn’t thinking about decor as much as social media, sending free meals to influencers in town each week in order to increase brand awareness.

“We started doing deliveries all over Manhattan, which we wouldn’t normally do,” he relays. “We got a driver who would go to the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side – anywhere we needed.

“Those first few weeks were critical because they got us into a sort of workflow for the duration of the lockdown,” he says. “I can’t say we made money, but we paid salaries. The goal was mainly not to send our employees home.”

The restaurant has been full almost every day since reopening to diners two months ago, he says. But while Shamaev is content with the situation, he also knows it could head south at any moment if COVID-19 cases spike again.

Diners at 12 Chairs Cafe in SoHo.Credit: Danielle Ziri

Though he obviously hopes indoor dining will resume soon, Shamaev says he’s “glad” that the authorities are taking their time with reopening. With other states – and Israel – having to reimpose restrictions due to a second wave of the virus, he believes it’s better to proceed cautiously – “because opening takes a certain investment, and then having to close again and send people home again and reopen again isn’t worth it.”

Shani, meanwhile, says he’s missing the enthusiastic ambiance that comes with the restaurant experience – something his establishments are known for.

“A restaurant is about the interaction between people,” he reflects. “With deliveries, the food is ‘blind’: you don’t know who you’re sending it to; you don’t see their reaction; their reaction doesn’t get back to you (unless it’s a complaint). You won’t see all the beautiful things like the happiness, the excitement, the involvement.

“The experience of the staff is also gone,” Shani says. “I have a goal to create happiness – it may be our biggest goal – and for that we first need our staff to be happy. When they’re happy, our clients are happy.”

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