In the heart of San Francisco’s Richmond District, on a block of Geary Boulevard that’s also home to a Chinese grocery store, an Irish bar and an old-fashioned barber shop, a decades-old sign juts out from one storefront:
“Israel’s Strictly Kosher Meat & Deli Market,” it reads with “kosher meat” in Hebrew and an Israeli flag underneath the English. Below, the store’s main window showcases a veritable banquet of Eastern European baked treats: piroshki, babka, strudel with every imaginable filling. “Grandma’s Kitchen — Homemade Lunches” reads another sign.
Step through the glass doors, and you’ll encounter shelves upon shelves of imported Israeli and Russian goods. Boxes of matzah, giant jars of borscht and pickled vegetables, gefilte fish in varieties you never knew you wanted. Whole kosher chickens and cuts of beef are stacked neatly in a standing freezer.
Russian and Israeli wines line the shelf behind the cash register. The homey smell of frying onions fills every corner of the room, while the sounds of chatter and gossip in Russian rise up out of the kitchen. Against the back wall, a defunct neon sign reads “Live Poultry.” As a visitor who just walked in off the street, you’d be hard-pressed to remember you were in the United States — let alone San Francisco.
Lack of live poultry aside (the sign is a relic from a time before the health department had rules about that kind of thing), this all-kosher market — the last of its kind in San Francisco — is an almost perfectly preserved taste of the Old Country.
And for the close-knit, deep-rooted Russian Jewish community it serves, owner Faina Avrutina is its soul.
At 55, Avrutina has shoulder-length reddish hair, an easy smile and a bashful manner as she flits around the store, preparing a seemingly never-ending banquet of hot food for her visitors: cucumber-and-tomato salad, beef and potato piroshkis, golden-battered fish, beef balls, chicken, seasoned rice, pickled cabbage salad and, of course, an array of strudels and other flaky pastries for dessert.
She makes many of these dishes — and more — each week, typically on Thursday nights, for her regular customers who come in on Friday morning to pick up food for Shabbat. She’ll often cook up a storm on Sundays, as well; kosher parties for bar mitzvahs and weddings keep her busy on the catering side. (One friend had Avrutina cater his wedding. “It was wonderful,” he says. “So much food, you wouldn’t believe it.”)
But perhaps more importantly, Avrutina’s store provides a meeting place for friends — including an established group of Russian speakers who blur the line between customer and friend.
“She acts as butcher and baker, she cleans the place, she helps every single person who walks in here,” says another friend, one of the many Russian Jews who stop by the store almost every day not only to shop, but to chat with Avrutina.
On this particular Thursday afternoon, a group of about five Russian-speaking friends have gathered to sample some of whatever Avrutina decides to cook; over the course of an hour, three more stop by between errands.
“If someone can’t afford something, she helps,” one friend says. “I’ve seen her sell things for less than they cost her. I’ve definitely seen her give things away for free.”
“She’s bad with the ‘no’ concept,” is how Avrutina’s daughter, Maya, puts it. “Also, she really doesn’t sleep. When she’s preparing food to cater a wedding or a party or other event, she’ll leave the store at night and then come back at 3 in the morning to cook. Or fall asleep here, in a chair.”
Her stuffed cabbage is many customers’ favorite item, though her housemade gefilte fish (made with tilapia, carp, sole and fried onions) is popular, as well. Special holiday menus around Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Purim draw in additional customers each year; and her cherry and raspberry sufganiyot are renowned in local Israeli circles.
“And when I told her I was purchasing multiple tastes to share with my co-workers, she threw in extra,” wrote one person on Yelp.com.
“She doesn’t know how to cook anything in small amounts,” says Maya, eyeing her mother as she brings out another dish of food. Maya was 10 when her family moved to San Francisco two decades ago, and she has the slightest trace of an accent. “Always food, food, more food,” she says. “That’s why my mother has a saying: ‘There has to be a lot of a good person.’ ”
According to the elder Avrutina’s friends — and there are many — no one is better equipped to talk about what being “a good person” really means. As the owner, butcher, baker and, really, sole employee of the store, she does more than just feed the community. She’s helping to preserve a culture.
The Russian Jewish community has been a highly visible part of the Richmond District for nearly a hundred years, with a wave of Jews emigrating to flee religious persecution following the 1917 Russian Revolution. Prior to World War II, Russian-owned bakeries and other businesses were the commercial backbone of the neighborhood.
And while the area is now home to a diverse mélange of Asian cultures in addition to Eastern European and Irish groups, immigrants from the former Soviet Union have continued to settle in the area — actually labeled “Little Russia” on Google Maps — in steady waves over the past few decades. Avrutina, a native of Nikolaev, Ukraine, came in 1990 with her daughter and her husband, Aleksander, who now drives a taxi in San Francisco.
She also came with a culinary degree.
It’s mainly first-generation immigrants who have become devoted to her food — and the attitude she takes toward it. She emphasizes the importance of making food by hand (“It takes time. If you want it to be good, it always takes time”), and using not only good ingredients, but also the best accoutrement. For example, she insists on using real china and glassware when she caters a party, no matter how much more convenient paper or plastic might be.
Avrutina’s shop serves as an epicenter to the concentrated community in the Richmond District, but she’s known beyond its borders. In 2011, at Chabad of San Francisco’s annual menorah lighting ceremony in Union Square, Rabbi Yosef Langer — a longtime fan of Avrutina’s — brought her up for the honor of lighting the candles. It was an emotional moment for her whole family.
“I think that was maybe the first time she started to understand how important she is, how many people love her,” says Maya. “She was so, so excited.”
Her adopted city of San Francisco means the world to Avrutina. “There’s so much culture here, we’re so lucky,” she says.
On her rare days off, she takes long walks around the city and visits museums. A love of helping her community is a big part of what keeps her going, she says. After all, there’s certainly not much of a financial incentive. When she took over the market from its previous owners — her husband’s cousins — in 2002, fresh kosher meat was the store’s big draw, with Jews coming from all over the Bay Area to buy it. The store has been there for almost 70 years, according to Avrutina, with only three owners — the original being Israel, the shop’s namesake.
But business isn’t quite what it used to be. Avrutina says she’s done her best to keep the store as it was when she took over. But as more Trader Joe’s locations began popping up in the Bay Area, regulars who shopped at Israel’s just for meat stopped coming in. The store still sells both fresh and frozen meat, as well as the hot food Avrutina cooks a few times a week, but big grocery stores present a challenge for small businesses like hers. “People will come in and say, ‘Well, I saw this for this much at Safeway, why is it more here?’ ” she says. “And I have to explain, everything here is kosher. It’s quality, kosher food.” Her establishment is overseen by the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of San Francisco.
Avrutina had two butchers when she first took over the store, but now she’s technically the only employee — she says she can’t afford to hire anyone else. Maya helped out frequently as she was growing up, but now says she has no desire to take over the store or to work in food service.
“Dealing with people all day, sometimes angry people — Russians are tough customers — it’s not for me,” she says with a laugh. “And I don’t want to work every hour of my life, like she did.” Maya is currently attending City College of San Francisco and studying business.
Maya says many of her Russian Jewish friends who were raised keeping kosher don’t anymore, so it makes sense that business is dwindling as members of the older generation pass away. But she’s not overly concerned about the Russian Jewish culture in San Francisco being diluted.
“My kids are learning Russian alongside English,” she says. “If I have the ability to give them another language, why deny them that?
“Besides,” she adds, glancing around at the store as her mother brings out yet another kind of strudel for her friends to sample. “This is all part of them. And I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
Israel’s Strictly Kosher Meat & Deli Market, 5621 Geary Blvd., S.F. Sunday and Monday from 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday from 9 a.m.-8 p.m., Friday from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (415) 752-3064.
cover photo/cathleen maclearie