Israel’s Strictly Kosher Market, a 65-year-old San Francisco institution for traditional, kosher Ashkenazi and Eastern European fare, will close its doors in March, according to owner Faina Avrutina. She has run the Outer Richmond district shop nearly single-handedly for the last decade.
In addition to being a community institution, the shop is San Francisco’s last remaining kosher market. Oakland has Oakland Kosher Foods, and San Jose’s Pars Kosher Market filled a niche in the South Bay when it opened in 2011. But in the city, Faina’s market is the last of its kind.
She said the store’s lease came up for renewal this month, and she chose not to renew it because the store is too expensive to run and business has been slow for some time. (Though on a recent Tuesday afternoon during Chanukah, the phone was ringing constantly and customers were wandering in steadily for homemade sufganiyot.)
“It’s just too difficult, and I don’t really have any help,” Avrutina said on Dec. 11, in between making batches of the holiday doughnuts. She plans to continue with her catering, and hopes to continue to provide her food for weddings, b’nai mitzvah and other celebrations.
“She’s tired,” added her daughter, Maya, in a phone interview. “She’s dedicated her last 10 years to this place, and she works really hard.”
Locals know the shop for Faina’s generosity — marked by her tendency to give out free food to kids, as well as those having a hard time making ends meet — and for its status as a reminder of what was, in the 1930s and ’40s, a Jewish community filled with Eastern European immigrants. Jewish food aficionados come from far and wide to 5821 Geary Blvd. (near 20th Avenue) for her matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, sufganiyot and poppyseed strudel.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi of Congregation Chevra Thilim, which is just a few blocks away, stopped by to visit with Avrutina and talk about the store. As the leader of the oldest Orthodox shul in San Francisco, Zarchi said it was “incredibly unfortunate” the store, which has been in Avrutina’s family for at least two generations, is closing.
“She’s a friend of mine, so I’m sad about it for that reason,” Zarchi said. However, he doesn’t see the situation as a sign that fewer people are eating kosher. He says they’re just going to larger supermarkets, a trend that can be seen in New York and Los Angeles, as well.
“People can buy kosher meat at Trader Joe’s, at Costco, which in a lot of ways is a great sign of kosher options becoming more mainstream,” said Zarchi. “And people want stores with a real American aesthetic, where they can do one-stop shopping … this generation shops differently than my parents or grandparents did. People used to know their local kosher butcher and baker, and they were loyal to them. Young people today are more savvy about prices. You could draw a comparison to what’s happening with Amazon versus independent stores.”
Zarchi also pointed to the rise of kosher meat-buying clubs in the Bay Area, which allow people to team up and buy kosher meat, at better prices, straight from a distributor.
Another factor in the market’s struggles, according to some in the local Orthodox community, was the fact that Avrutina’s shop never had a full-time mashgiach, or kashrut supervisor.
Solomon Isaac, president of Orthodox Congregation Anshey Sfard, about five blocks from Avrutina’s shop, said that many people who are scrupulous about keeping kosher do not buy her prepared food for that reason. (Her meat is certified kosher and overseen by Rabbi Jacob Traub of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of San Francisco.)
“I think she was locked into the idea that it would be too costly to have [a mashgiach] on the premises,” said Isaac, who added that he buys meat from the market all the time and considers Avrutina a friend. “And
things were already very costly for her there. I know her rent went up a few times in the last year … it’s terrible, because we would all love to see her succeed.”
Stephanie Singer, manager of special programs at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, was among the shop’s neighbors who were devastated to hear the news.
“Faina is just a wonderful person, and it was a wonderful neighborhood store,” said Singer, whose family keeps kosher and lives around the corner from the market. “She knew my son from the time he was an infant and would always give him treats. You could call up right before Shabbat and say ‘Can you save me a challah?’ and she would. There aren’t too many places like that anymore.”
Samuel Salkin, executive director of San Francisco’s Sinai Memorial Chapel, said he partially faults the local Jewish community for not supporting the market.
“Kashrut is a central tenet of Judaism … but the fact is a community has to support its kosher butcher, its kosher baker, or it won’t have them,” said Salkin, who was shocked to learn Avrutina was closing up when he stopped in to order sufganiyot for his staff.
“She puts her heart and soul into her baking. But very few community leaders were willing to say, ‘We have to buy local, we have to support this.’ And people are looking for a cheaper solution.”
Added Salkin, “In the end, the community did not vote with its dollars to keep this place going, and those of us who keep kosher will suffer because of it.”
Click Here for this week’s editorial about Israel’s Strictly Kosher Market