Coronavirus crisis turns food lovers into culinary professionals

"COVID-19 hit and my business tanked. After the first lockdown, I began toying with the idea of starting my own catering business."

GILAD AND Dana Azulai of Pop-Up Pâtisserie: Inundated with orders (photo credit: DANNY STEINBERGER PATEL)
GILAD AND Dana Azulai of Pop-Up Pâtisserie: Inundated with orders
Until COVID-19, Gali Idan of Ramat Hasharon spent most of her time working at her hi-tech job. Now she is the proud owner of Gali Bashli Li (Gali, Cook for me).
“For 17-and-a-half years I was a director of business development. Then in 2019, together with a partner, I opened my own consulting business for hi-tech companies,” Idan recalls. “And then COVID-19 hit and my business tanked. After the first lockdown, I began toying with the idea of starting my own catering business. By the end of June, I’d decided to give it a go. I’d always loved cooking, but I never thought I could make money selling food I had prepared myself, since I was more into preparing unique dishes on a small scale.”
So, how did it go?
“I began posting my menus on Facebook and Instagram, and I’ve become a digital wizard over the last couple of months. I joined a food photography workshop on Zoom so I could learn how to take better pictures. And before I knew it, I was receiving more and more orders for meals, and a few people have already become regular customers. This is just so exciting, especially when people praise me for my creativity and initiative.”
Idan prepares and sells well-known dishes, such as couscous, beef tagine with dried fruit, roasted vegetables with silan, lahmacun, roast beef in tomato sauce, beer chicken drumsticks and mujadara.
“I really love cooking these dishes. It’s like making art for me.”
Idan is not alone. Many people who have been let go from their jobs or furloughed due to the COVID-19 pandemic have decided to make a drastic career change and have begun their own food businesses. Some began by selling food they made at home at rock-bottom prices, just to earn a little money to get by.
One such person is Daniel Aviv from Mazkeret Batya, a married father of four, and a veteran building contractor. When the pandemic hit, many of his clients canceled their plans for renovating their homes and he found himself with lots of free time on his hands.
“So I decided to fulfill a lifelong dream I’ve had, which is to own and run a food truck,” Aviv says with a twinkle in his eye. “I convinced a few friends of mine to join me in the venture. We built a kitchen in my yard, and so far we’ve received really positive feedback.”
Where did your affinity for food come from?
“Growing up in a Moroccan family, food always took center stage and occupied a large part of our daily routine, even more so on Shabbat. When my work projects came to a standstill, I began following a food blogger named Tomer, and I tried out a few of his recipes. I love preparing food, but I was really shy about trying to sell anything I made near where I live, since everyone knew me as a contractor. Thankfully, I finally got over the embarrassment. I mean, it’s not like I stole something or hurt someone. All I’m doing is selling good food. And I must admit, I’ve enjoyed every moment of it.”
Aviv’s new business, Frena Schnitzel, is open only on Fridays, and the whole family is involved.
“Every Tuesday, we start getting things organized for that week. My wife and kids all help out. It’s amazing. Our main focus is on Moroccan frena bread. We sell sandwiches for 35 shekels [NIS 40 for sandwiches with meat]. Once we get things going we’ll raise prices slowly so we can make a profit. We also have a take-away and delivery service, which is also doing well. I’m really hoping to keep this business going, even when I go back to working as a contractor.”
Unlike Idan and Aviv, Gilad and Dana Azulai graduated from culinary school and received professional training as pastry chefs, though neither of them had worked in the industry. Dana was a bookkeeper at an investment firm and Gilad ran two large afternoon programs in Hadera.
“We had to dig into our savings accounts during the first lockdown and we soon realized we’d need to reinvent ourselves if we were going to generate any income,” Gilad recalls. “We both knew we loved cooking, and it’d been a serious hobby for both of us for years. Even before the epidemic, I used to upload pictures to the Internet of dishes I’d prepared, and I would get many likes and “angry” comments from people who were frustrated that I wasn’t willing to sell food I’d prepared. But I had been so busy with work then. Now that we both had time, Dana suggested we try to sell the food we prepared. So I posted a message online, and by the next day we were inundated with orders. I quickly got a website up and running and the number of orders grew from week to week.”
The Azulais’ business is called Pop-Up Pâtisserie, and they make a variety of pastries, such as crunch brioche, crunch pesto, Turkish snail pastries, and lots of bread.
“Lately, people are really willing to pay for unique and creative treats made by small niche businesses,” Gilad adds. “Our prices definitely reflect this new reality.”
MANY INDUSTRIES were hit hard by the lockdowns. A number of professional singers, including Aviva Avidan, Ruhama Raz and Vardina Cohen, began selling pastries they made at home. Cohen was the first of the trio to get the dough ball rolling, selling jahnun, spelt jahnun and spelt bread at discounted prices.
“I was always very spoiled when it came to cooking. Even after I got married, my parents and brothers, both of whom are great cooks, too, would still bring me pots of steaming, tasty food. At some point, since I had four children of my own, I found my way back to the kitchen and now I love preparing healthy food.”
When COVID-19 hit, however, Cohen found herself without any scheduled shows.
“I hate sitting at home doing nothing, so I began selling my spelt bread for 25 shekels a loaf,” Cohen recalls. “It was selling really well, so I began preparing jahnun, too, at 50 shekels for 10 pieces, and 80 shekels for spelt jahnun. I started getting more and more customers since I was happy to add any extra ingredients people requested. My prices are much lower than you’d pay in a shop, and I absolutely love making the bread and jahnun, and it makes me feel so good when people tell me how happy they are eating my products. I’m definitely going to try to continue baking bread, even after I go back to singing professionally.”
Singer Adam Lahav, who used to perform frequently at private parties, found himself looking at his schedule for March – and 30 cancelled performances.
“Since I had no work to do, I began tinkering in the kitchen,” Lahav recalls. “I looked up a recipe online and began cooking. Very quickly I saw that my creative side was enjoying this activity. One night, after I’d prepared pizza for my friends and received lots of positive feedback, I decided to delve into learning a little more about culinary arts. I used Google Translate to read articles written in Italian about pizza preparation. Every day I would try out two new recipes, until I finally reached the perfect pizza.”
Just as the first lockdown was ending, Lahav received a proposal from his brother-in-law he could not refuse.
“He owned a pub in Netanya called Hansel and Gretel, and he offered me a job preparing pizza there for his customers. So, we set up a mini-pizzeria with a tabun oven in one of the corners of the pub and began selling pizza. I learned a lot as I worked, and by mid-July I’d become pretty good at making Neapolitan pizza.
“Then, boom! The second lockdown hit us hard, and we realized we needed to reinvent ourselves once again. One night, I was bringing pizza ingredients over to my brother-in-law, including ready-made dough so he could cook at his place, and that was when I realized I should sell kits for people to make pizza at home.
What’s included in the pizza kit?
“A ball of homemade Neapolitan pizza dough that I prepare myself, Italian tomato sauce, spices, mozzarella cheese and any toppings that people have requested. In short, a ready-made meal you can put together in a couple minutes, and your kids can do it by themselves, too. Then, all you need to do is pop it in the oven. The pizza kits took off straight away.”
Hajahnun Shel Nechama was recently brought to life by Nechama Peretz, who worked in childcare in northern Israel before the pandemic. Now she works alongside her son, Nevo, who lives in Tel Aviv.
“My mother makes amazing traditional Yemenite food,” says Nevo excitedly. “So my wife and I told her, ‘The time has come for you to open up a small business and start selling your jahnun in Tel Aviv.’ And because my mother is a health nut, she likes to make spelt jahnun, which is much lighter and has fewer calories. We started selling kits with instructions so people can cook the jahnun at home and have all the extras people usually eat with jahnun.
“My mom puts the kits together, and I take care of the marketing, selling and distribution side. I am a professional respiratory therapist, but I also studied psychology and business management, so I have the necessary marketing tools to run a successful business. My mother never thought she’d become a successful business owner, and it’s so amazing to see how happy she is now. And who knows, she might never have had the courage to break out of her comfort zone if it weren’t for the epidemic.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.