Sari Cohen loves living in Pittsburgh and would like to see its Jewish community grow — she just wishes the city’s kosher landscape was a bit different.
Compared to New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, Pittsburgh doesn’t have many kosher eateries. And while it’s nice to dine at a restaurant occasionally, the bigger concern, Cohen said, is the lack of kosher takeout options. About twice a month, Cohen orders food for Shabbat from one of the area’s five kosher caterers. She and her family enjoy the dishes and would order more frequently if there were more options, she said.
“We are a lactose-intolerant family, so there’s only so much Milky Way we can have,” Cohen said.
Squirrel Hill resident Ilana Schwarcz has similar concerns. “Kosher takeout in Pittsburgh is great,” she said, “but limited.”
Schwarcz has long supported kosher caterers in the city. What’s changed since the pandemic began, however, is Schwarcz’s buying habits.
“We order five times more than we did at the start of the pandemic,” she said. “We are so busy with work, school, virtual learning and taking care of the house — it's a relief to have a healthy meal that we don't have to cook.”
The uptick in Schwarcz’s purchases is consistent with national trends.
As of early spring 2021, consumers across all age groups were ordering more takeout and delivery for dinner, according to the National Restaurant Association.
The pandemic, busy lifestyles and a desire for “convenient alternatives to home-cooking” have caused global revenues in the online food delivery segment to nearly double since 2017, according to Statista, a company that tracks consumer data.
Kosher caterers throughout Pittsburgh agreed that buying habits have changed since March 2020, but cited staffing concerns and a rise in costs as significant impediments to their operations.
Aryeh Markovic, co-owner of Murray Avenue Kosher, described how, due to a lack of employees the day he spoke with the Chronicle, he and three staffers were continuously running around the shop stocking shelves, helping customers check out and managing myriad other responsibilities.
Along with spurring the “great resignation,” the pandemic reshaped the way business is done, Markovic explained.
At first, typical catering events dried up during quarantine, but even now — nearly two years post-March 2020 — parties, office meetings, even funerals and shivas, are smaller than they were before the pandemic, Markovic said.
While there’s been a decrease in the numbers attending catered in-person events, the availability and cost of items also have shifted.
“It’s hard to get product,” Markovic said. “Prices are constantly increasing on us, unfortunately, and we do the best we can; that’s all we can do.”
Moishe Siebzener, of Creative Kosher Catering, said he also has faced supply chain issues.
“Every time we walk into a store, we see prices go up,” he said.
In a Feb. 3 report, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization confirmed that food prices in January reached their highest level in a decade.
Siebzener said rising prices are only one factor he and Deena Ross, of Deena’s Dishes, have had to manage.
“We’ve had to reinvent ourselves,” he said. “We’ve had to be more online and have had to sell to the community on a different scale.”
Prior to the pandemic, Siebzener and Ross operated Shabbox, a Squirrel Hill-based store stocked with Shabbat-ready takeout food.
Staffing the store became difficult, though, and Siebzener and Ross closed the operation. Siebzener said they'd consider opening Shabbox again under the right circumstances, but that their business has changed so much since March 2020. “We really make to order,” he said. “We don’t want to end up with leftovers.”
When Shabbox was open, anything that didn’t sell ended up as Siebzener and Ross’ Shabbat meals. Now that the store is closed, and the duo has a better idea of exactly what to cook each week, there are fewer leftovers — which has its pluses and minuses, Siebzener said.
Judah Cowen, owner of Elegant Edge Catering, said the pandemic has forced his company to pivot from large-scale catering to takeout, then back to catering, all while managing economics and community interests.
When the pandemic began in March 2020, Elegant Edge started offering takeout for Shabbat.
The meals were often themed and the menu changed weekly.
“It was very heartwarming to see people support the business — and it kept us very strong knowing that we had what to provide — despite the fact that all of our events had been canceled,” Cowen said.
But as the pandemic continued, and staffing issues affected Elegant Edge, Cowen was forced to adjust.
“The thing that was supporting the business the least had to go,” he said.
Cowen said he still receives calls from customers asking for takeout.
“If I had unlimited staffing, I would probably continue it, but I have to prioritize what’s best,” he said, noting he’s had a greater demand for event catering and food on college campuses.
Takeout is priced à la carte, Cowen said, and to keep the prices reasonable “you have to have a high volume.”
Although Elegant Edge no longer offers takeout, Cowen isn’t averse to bringing it back.
“We’ll try to offer it when we can, on a pop-up basis, and if we see there is a big demand we will possibly look into a more permanent option,” he said.
There are approximately 49,200 Jewish adults and children, comprising an estimated 26,800 households, in Pittsburgh, according to the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study. About 15% of Pittsburgh’s Jewish adults keep a kosher home. For comparison, Miami — which boasts more than 100 kosher restaurants and seven kosher takeout places, according to Kosher Miami — has approximately 123,200 Jewish people and 55,700 Jewish households, with approximately 20% of households keeping a kosher home, according to the 2014 Greater Miami Jewish Federation Population Study.
Both Pittsburgh and Miami’s Jewish population totals pale in comparison to New York, and its eight counties served by the UJA-Federation of New York, which have more Jews than the Jewish populations of the metropolitan areas of Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. combined. Approximately 1,538,000 Jews live in 694,000 Jewish households, with approximately 18% of non-Orthodox and 93% of Orthodox people keeping a kosher home, according to the 2011 New York Jewish Community Study.
Cowen knows some Pittsburghers want more kosher takeout options, “but it’s not like we’re sitting in New York City or Miami,” he said. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.