During a regular week, Irving’s Premium Challah sells about 1,800 loaves to synagogues, JCCs, schools and grocery stores from San Jose to Tiburon to the East Bay.
The last few weeks, however, have been anything but business as usual.
As most Bay Area Jewish institutions closed their doors in mid-March as cities went into lockdown to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Irving’s had an 80 percent decrease in challah sales, according to owner Irving Greisman.
Other small businesses have experienced similarly precipitous drops in revenue.
“It was like dynamite exploding all at once,” said Jordan Schachter, a chef who runs a SOMA events space called Jordan’s Kitchen that catered primarily to corporate clients before the pandemic.
He said he has lost all of his corporate business for the foreseeable future. Even the San Diego Padres, who were supposed to come for an event during an Aug. 24-26 road series in San Francisco, cancelled, he said with dismay.
Hoping to ease the pain of community members who own or work at small businesses, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco last week launched an online marketplace for advertising goods and services for free.
In addition to food items, the marketplace includes listings for comic books, jewelry, and Judaica, as well as photo restoration, computer repair and personal training services. It’s called the Tikkun Emanu-El Shuk.
The way it works is this: The synagogue does not process any transactions, so if you see something you want to buy — for example, a Passover candy gift pack — you click on a “buy this item” link and you’ll receive information via email on how to make the purchase.
New businesses are being added all the time, and Emanu-El members can apply to list their products or services via an online form.
Rabbi Sarah Joselow Parris, director of congregational engagement at Emanu-El, said that 140 shidduchim (matches) have been made since the marketplace opened on April 1.
As one of the first businesses to be listed, Irving’s Premium Challah received about 30 challah orders in the days before Passover, according to Greisman, 73, who’s been in business for 16 years. He expects orders to resume after Passover ends April 16.
“I’m very grateful to Emanu-El,” he said. “It sure is helping us” and opening “a totally new market for us.”
The online shuk also has given some business to Jordan’s Kitchen, which quickly pivoted to curbside meal pickups for families.
“It’s not our only source of clientele,” Schachter said of the shuk, “but this is another community that I’m grateful to be a part of … The only thing that matters is that we’re keeping the doors open, paying the bills and paying our staff.”
This isn’t the first pandemic, but it’s the first pandemic where we have new tools at our disposal to help others.
The idea for the marketplace came from Rabbi Ryan Bauer of Emanu-El. After seeing pleas for help from small business owners on his Facebook feed, he began to think about how he could rally his online “village” to help keep these businesses afloat.
“This isn’t the first pandemic, but it’s the first pandemic where we have new tools at our disposal to help others,” Bauer said.
He brought the idea to members of the synagogue’s social justice committee, including Melissa Koenigsberg, Lisa Krim and Joel Lewenstein. Within a few days, they had recruited 17 businesses to participate and Lewenstein (an employee of Airtable, an S.F.-based cloud collaboration service) built the platform using his company’s tools.
“This is like Machane Yehuda,” Bauer said, referring to the famous shuk in Jerusalem. He noted that the social justice committee has shared details of the project with the Union for Reform Judaism so that other synagogues across the country can start their own similar projects.
Additionally, Parris said that Emanu-El is supporting small business owners by connecting them with marketing and financial planning professionals. “We’re focused on getting them the help that they need,” she said.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, Chuck Siegel, the owner of S.F.-based Charles Chocolates, did a lot of business with the travel industry, supplying his products to airlines, duty free shops and hotels. Now he is trying to convert his wholesale business to a retail business “because we’re all stuck inside,” he said.
After listing his chocolate-covered matzah in the shuk, he received more than 20 orders in a matter of days. After Passover, he plans to list other chocolate products.
“Anything that helps us raise our retail business profile I absolutely love,” said Siegel, who has been making chocolate for three decades. “We’ve been members of Emanu-El for decades. I really appreciate that they put this together as a way for congregants to help other congregants.”
Bauer said that “these can be deeply meaningful times” for a community like Emanu-El.
“If we can make our community realize, through this process, that they have a responsibility to one another — even if it means buying chocolate matzah — we are going to dance longer and faster than we ever have when we get to the other side of this.”