Blow to the stomach: The pandemic hits Israeli restaurants hard

"I’m calling the suppliers I owe money to and saying, ‘Please be patient.’ It’s very troubling.”

Freshit was full of customers every day until the pandemic began (photo credit: Courtesy)
Freshit was full of customers every day until the pandemic began
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Denis Phillips thought he had it made. In June 2019 he opened Freshit, a mostly vegan restaurant in the middle of the bustling hi-tech area in Herzliya Pituah. With a concept of “tari, bari, mahir,” or “fresh, healthy, and quick,” he offered a make-your-own salad bar, with more than 40 options, for a reasonable 46 shekels (about $11), and promised food in just five minutes.
The concept took off, and he soon had 13 employees and lines out the door at lunchtime. He says they served an average of 450 to 500 meals a day, both salads and cooked meals from the kitchen including grilled salmon, chicken breast and seitan and quinoa patties.
“Then (the first wave of) corona came, and we went from more than 450 meals a day to 30 to 20,” Phillips says. “So I closed shop for the lockdown and I thought we were down for two weeks.” He ended up being closed for two months, but reopened with a smaller staff and limited menu, and offered deliveries. Even then, he wasn’t able to make it work.
“There was so much uncertainty and so many restrictions,” he says. “Then there was a spike in corona cases and talk of another lockdown. Eventually I had no more money to feed the business.” Phillips says he received only minimal government assistance, a one-time grant of NIS 14,000 (about $4,000). Since he only opened the restaurant in 2019, he was not eligible for a lot of government grants. He says he is disheartened, has lost more than one million shekels (about $285,000) and is trying to pay off his debts.
“I’m totally drained,” he says. “I’m living an experience that I am totally unfamiliar with. I’m calling the suppliers I owe money to and saying, ‘Please be patient.’ It’s very troubling.” Phillips says that almost all of the restaurants surrounding Freshit have either closed or are in the process of closing. While there are no official statistics, thousands of restaurants in Israel have closed since the pandemic began. Many of the owners complain that they are either not eligible for government grants or they are too hard to get.
To be fair, the restaurant business is tough even under normal circumstances. An estimated half of all restaurants that open close within two years. Add to growing unemployment from the pandemic, as well as some hesitation to eat in restaurants because of the transmission of corona, and the lockdown, and it seems hard to believe that any restaurants have survived.
During the first lockdown in March-April, restaurants in Israel were open for both takeout and delivery. During the stricter lockdown of September- October, only deliveries were allowed.
Ephraim Greenblatt of Shmaltz Deli in Jerusalem ( spent a significant amount of time and money preparing to focus on deliveries. Shmaltz opened in February, just as the pandemic got underway in Israel. Greenblatt also owns Hatch, a brewpub in the Mahaneh Yehuda market, which shut down just as the second lockdown came into effect.
To prepare to switch to delivery, Greenblatt bought a motorcycle and hired a full-time delivery person, as well as purchasing expensive delivery insurance. He has changed his packaging to enable the food to arrive as intact as possible.
So far, he says, his delivery business is doing well.
“I had expected delivery and takeout to be 25% to 30% of my business but it’s been 75% to 80%,” he says. “We also have a mehadrin hechsher, which is rare, and we are not fine dining, but we are also not fast food either.” He says that the pivot to delivery may continue even after the pandemic ends.
Other restaurant owners say the government was wrong to close restaurants to in-person dining.
“It hasn’t been proven that in-person dining leads to infection,” says Guy Zmora, the co-owner of a new restaurant called Twins in Jerusalem. Twins, which serves gourmet burgers, opened near the First Station in Jerusalem in July. The first few weeks business was slow, but it picked up in August, and the owners hoped their dream of opening a restaurant was set to succeed. Zmora says he and his partners invested more than NIS 500,000 (almost $150,000) in opening the restaurant.
“I worry about the salaries we need to pay, the rent, and our suppliers,” he says. “There is definitely a lot of pressure.”
But many restaurant owners are not giving up. Denis Phillips of Freshit has opened a new takeout restaurant for Shabbat food called 77 Deli Ra’anana. Before Freshit, he owned a deli in Netanya for eight years, and he is offering some of the same food he used to cook there. So if you happen to be in the Ra’anana area and looking for some good herring, chopped liver or stuffed cabbage, you know where to find it.