Jerusalem businesses reopening face eager clientele and uncertain future

Along Bethlehem Road, on Emek Refaim, at the First Station, in the city center and of course at Mahaneh Yehuda, Sunday morning was a glorious day for coffee shops and restaurants.

PACKED WITH patrons in Mahaneh Yehuda. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
PACKED WITH patrons in Mahaneh Yehuda.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
On Sunday at 11 a.m. on Bethlehem Road, Itzik Ya’akov, owner of the little Makom Shel Itzik, smiles for the first time in a while.
Early that morning he set out his tables and chairs, decorated with small flower plants, for the first time in about a year, to greet the many expected loyal customers who saved their little neighborhood coffee spot through a crowdfunding effort, and continued to come daily throughout the coronavirus year for takeaway service, keeping the place alive. A few weeks ago, the municipality installed colorful seating across the city to enable customers, like Itzik's, to sip java (from disposable cups) and await better days.
Along Bethlehem Road, on Emek Refaim, at the First Station, in the city center and of course at Mahaneh Yehuda, Sunday morning was a glorious day for coffee shops and restaurants. In all these places, Jerusalem Post photographer Marc Israel Sellem and I found owners torn between gladness and concern for the near future, doing their best to welcome Jerusalemites coming to their favorite venues for a cuppa or salad.  
HAMAKOM SHEL Itzik owner Itzik Yaakov (right) with Eran, his cook.HAMAKOM SHEL Itzik owner Itzik Yaakov (right) with Eran, his cook.
“I am happy,” says Itzik, “until the next lockdown. I have no illusions and no doubts. Right after the elections, we will be back to a long lockdown.” Asked what the most difficult aspect of the lockdown was for him, Itzhik replies, “It was a shock. We were not given time to prepare. We didn’t even understand what it meant, how long it would be for – nothing. We were notified on March 15, 2020, to close from the following day. I had to send employees to halat (unpaid furlough), not knowing if or when I would be able to re-employ them.
"We had no time to organize. Lots of perishable merchandise was already in – we had to throw away most of it, causing a steep financial loss. Not knowing how long the closure would last was terrible. I hope that if we have to shut down again, at least it won’t be on such short notice.”
A SPRINKLING of customers at Aroma on Emek Refaim Street. (Photos: Marc Israel Sellem)A SPRINKLING of customers at Aroma on Emek Refaim Street. (Photos: Marc Israel Sellem)
Customers there were enjoying a sunny day and the new menus. Itzik admits that traffic here has diminished from pre-corona days, but believes that soon customers will come back in greater numbers.
Adjacent to Itzik, Caffe Kallo was experiencing much of the same. Tamar, the co-owner, says her conviction that the reopening won’t last was preventing her from really rejoicing.
“I am sure we will go into another lockdown; it is just a matter of time.”
The restaurant is undergoing some renovations, so only a small part of it is open for customers, which partially explains their absence.
“People are still not sure about the new situation,” explains Gideon, a diner having a coffee there. “It will take time until we all get back to what we had before the corona. After all, we all went through a terrible time.”
AT THE entrance to the path leading to the First Station coming from the Mesila Park, “MitzPetel,” the small kiosk selling juices and teas, has benefited for months from the nearby covered seating capsules that have enabled customers to sit protected from the wind and the rain. There is a relatively full complement of customers today, but that has been the case already for weeks.
The same goes for the First Station compound. Director Itamar Tarragan is busy all day long with his staff, coordinating matters for all of the eateries and coffee shops operating there.
“They try to survive. It has been a real war for survival. We helped as much as we could and now, slowly, most of them – including the larger restaurants – are reopening. The state and the municipality could have done more, but the main problem here is the owner of the plot – Israel Railways – which was virtually deaf to our issues. I am not even sure this place will survive after the 10-year contract ends in two years. The situation was already difficult; the coronavirus made it almost impossible.”
STORES SADLY stand empty, unable to survive the pandemic.STORES SADLY stand empty, unable to survive the pandemic.
Yet right from Sunday morning, some of the carts and stalls selling craft work were reopening, hoping to reach out again to customers who might be eager to do some shopping as in the pre-pandemic era.
Sitting at a table set on the sidewalk on that sunny morning, Dominique Verda and his wife Eleonore, a correspondent for French Public TV, agree that the unlocking of coffee shops and restaurants is a welcome development. Verda says another lockdown may be in the offing, but meanwhile things are looking up.
City council member Dan Illouz (Hitorerut), sitting with a friend outside the Aroma on the German Colony's main drag of Emek Refaim Street, believes that this time the opening is for good, that no additional lockdown looms on the horizon.
“It all depends on the mutations. If we fail to stop them here, things will be set back. The vaccines are the best way to face the pandemic, but the mutations are a threat.”
Illouz adds that the lack of discipline among the population is a real problem. “But I can understand that after a year of illness and limits and isolation, people really want to get back to life.”
As to the inclination of so many Jerusalemites to patronize eateries, Illouz and his friend Nethanel point out that this has become a real local way of life some feared would never return.
“I told all my friends that the day would come when we would return to the coffee shops and restaurants,” says Alon, the chief manager at Aroma. “Some didn’t believe me, but here we are. People seem happy to be here, but it’s too early to say if they will return in numbers like before.”
Alon is not sure this reopening will last. As a result, people buy less, the menu is reduced and they are careful not to overstock, as another lockdown could cause serious financial loss. Regarding this month’s holiday, not all the branches will be kosher for Passover and open.
AT LEHEM VE-OD on Emek Refaim St., owner Irit Armoza grins through tears, still in shock from the coronavirus death of her chief waiter, Georgette, a month ago. Asked on Sunday morning how she felt on the first day of getting back to regular life, Armoza – who believes this reopening came too soon and could be dangerous – hesitates, then says, “I have a feeling of joy in my heart, together with a strong feeling that this is only temporary.”
She says that all her regular customers came to congratulate her and express satisfaction at the reopening of their favored place, “but they all fear this will end again soon. Many of us are seriously afraid of those who refuse to be vaccinated and within a week or so we will see the harmful impact of the Purim excesses. Add to that the elections. I have no doubt that the authorities will force us into another lockdown, who knows for how long.”
Armoza cites the lack of discipline as a major reason for our glum outlook.
IRIT ARMOZA, owner of Lehem Ve-od: Temporary joy in her heartIRIT ARMOZA, owner of Lehem Ve-od: Temporary joy in her heart“We have not learned to live with the coronavirus, with vaccines and precautions and hygiene – we are not there yet. Perhaps we cannot reach that stage at all. Some of my clients feel that the government has such a low appreciation of their capacity to understand the reality, that the whole thing is a drill – they allow us to open a few days for the elections, and right after, send us back to lockdown. I share that sense. It is wrong to open everything now; obviously it is being done because of the elections.
“Many people are like the passengers on the Titanic. They know what is going to happen but they do nothing.”
As for the price of the pandemic in terms of businesses, Armoza says that only those who closed their restaurants and obtained money from the government survived relatively easily.
“Those, like me, who continued to sell merchandise and takeaway food are barely surviving.”
Government subsidies are granted according to a proven loss of at least 40% of their regular income. Armoza, like all the coffee shops that opened just for takeaway per regulations, lost income, but less than 40% and hence received nothing from the government. As a result, most businesses have reduced their menu offerings and buy less merchandise, for fear they will be shuttered again and need to discard their products – and for fear not all the customers will come back at first.
Armoza mentions the loss of her waitress who would have been scheduled to come back this week and admits that for the moment she cannot even start to interview a replacement.
THE ATMOSPHERE is a bit more upbeat at Café Hillel on Jaffa Road. All of the employees showed up immediately and the spot is humming as usual with a full menu and numerous customers. Here, as in most restaurants and coffee shops, the majority of customers prefer to sit outside, where there is no limit to the number of people. Indoor seating requires a green passport.
“People will get used to the new reality,” affirms Lior, the manager. “Things are returning to normal and the customers will come back. Even today, the first day, we have a lot of diners, but I am sure that within a couple of days it will be as packed as before. This place, like any place where you can sit and enjoy life, is a symbol of our life and liberty. People will not renounce to it easily.”
He acknowledges that there is always some fear that a new lockdown may come, but for now, “I prefer to be on the optimistic side and have already placed the orders for Passover merchandise.”
At the shuk, Almog Orgad has, quite boldly, chosen this period to realize his dream and open a gourmet grill restaurant on Jaffa Road, opposite the shuk entrance. Just 24-years-old, Orgad managed to obtain the NIS 3.5 million necessary, has brought in chefs and waiters and completely renovated the site – his first business. There is a grill bar on the first floor, a banquet hall with capacity for up to 300 people on the second story and a private event room beyond a corridor. Asked how he dared plan and invest such a sum at a time like this, in a business constantly threatened to close because of the pandemic, Orgad smiles.
“Only a mishuga (crazy) person could do that.”
A WOMAN and her pooch embrace the freedom to sit down with a cup of coffee.A WOMAN and her pooch embrace the freedom to sit down with a cup of coffee.
He explains that his entire professional life has revolved around Mahaneh Yehuda market and eateries, and he entertained no other option.
“I believe that dreams should be realized and I am sure that now, after we emerge from this coronavirus, people will, more than ever, seek places for good food and entertainment. The shuk is the best location – an attractive place for locals and people from across the country. And when, with God’s help, tourists return, this will be the best place to go."
Orgad admits he needed a lot of courage and it was not easy.
“We decided to open for takeaway some two weeks ago, and today, on the first day of government-sanctioned reopening, we officially welcomed guests with great joy and confidence.”
Orgad decided to buy products for a significant period ahead, including Passover essentials. He expects the holiday period to provide good income and boost his brand-new business. He never considered opening anywhere else.
“I was born here and grew up here, close to the shuk; there is no other place for me.”
Inside the market, many of the stalls and shops have undergone renovations during this period, and many look shiny and new for the reopening.
In his deli, Tal Ivgy seems happy. Like everyone else, the specter of another possible lockdown concerns him, but he refuses to let this dampen his spirits.
“I am ready for customers now and for foreign tourists that will come back soon, I hope.
“This is the best place. There is nothing like Mahaneh Yehuda. I am happy today.”