After a devastating year, three local Jewish restaurant owners remain cautiously optimistic about the future

Restaurateur Aaron Teitelbaum decided to close his three restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic.

By Cheryl Baehr, Special to the Jewish Light & Ellen Futterman, Editor-in-Chief

To say that 2020 has been the hardest year of Aaron Teitelbaum’s professional life is no overstatement. As owner of three St. Louis restaurants – upscale Herbie’s in Clayton and two locations of Kingside Diner, one in Clayton and the other in the Central West End – Teitelbaum has seen revenues plunge over the past year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the hospitality industry. By plunged, he does not simply mean down; business was cut in half with no clear picture of when or how things will return back to pre-pandemic levels. Still, says Teitelbaum, his restaurants are likely in better shape than others because, as he notes, they are still in business.

“I’m blessed that I have team that can run our businesses so I can be out there looking for money. I’m fearful for the mom and pop operations that can’t do that,” says Teitelbaum, 47. “I’ve literally gone after every piece of funding that’s out there, every round of PPP (Payroll Protection Program) loans. We’ve been forgiven on the first round (of PPP) already. We’re going to be fine.”

Teitelbaum’s situation is emblematic of the challenges faced by the hospitality industry, at large, over the course of the pandemic. Few people would argue that among the many businesses hit hardest by COVID-19, bars and restaurants top the list. For an industry that exists to bring people together, the past year has not only tested workers’ resilience; it has called into question what it even means to be in the service business when serving others is fraught with risk and uncertainty. Though many can feel sunnier days ahead, thanks to actual sunnier skies and the ramping up of the vaccine rollout, the year anniversary of the coronavirus shutdown has given many the chance to reflect on where they’ve been and where they think they are headed, while still very much operating in the thick of it.

Looking back on the past year, Teitelbaum may be grateful for his restaurant group’s ability to respond as well as possible to the ever-shifting COVID-19 landscape, but it hasn’t been without its headaches. Since that fateful third weekend of last March, Teitelbaum has had to navigate a changed dining landscape, altering his business models to accommodate the needs of the dining public and responding to ever-shifting state and local guidelines. Most recently, indoor dining at Teitelbaum’s Clayton restaurants, like all other dining establishments in St. Louis County, was shut down for six weeks, from Nov. 17 to Jan.4, by health officials to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Outdoor dining was allowed, but at a reduced capacity. The county’s ban meant many of Teitelbaum’s 150 employees were without work during the closure, which was almost like a double-whammy for the wait staff since the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s tends to be the most lucrative.

Beckie Jacobs, the owner of Serendipity Homemade Ice Cream, is clear about the difficulties faced by those in the hospitality industry since the pandemic reared its ugly head in St. Louis last March.

“We’ve all been ravaged,” Jacobs says. 

For the 56-year-old Shaare Emeth congregant, the past year has challenged everything she knows about the restaurant business and has shaken her to her core. As soon as it became clear to her that the pandemic was about to alter the dining landscape last March, she quickly pivoted to curbside, only to close down completely two weeks later because of the uncertainty that surrounded remaining open. Though she briefly reopened her Webster Groves parlor last year, she quickly realized that, for the foreseeable future, she was more comfortable remaining a takeout and delivery-only operation for the time being. 

Like Teitelbaum, Jacobs is frank about the declines she’s seen in revenues this past year. In order to remain afloat, she’s had to take on debt that will need to be paid back because she chose not to pursue a PPP loan, explaining it had conditions she was not comfortable taking on. Taking on more debt has allowed her to stay operational, but it hasn’t been easy.  

“We’re finally almost back to ‘normal’ sales, but I’ve taken on more debt,” Jacobs says. “There have been moments where I think this is crazy and I’m not sure if I’m going to make it, but I’m still committed because I’m still here. It sucks, but it’s manageable.” 

Roo Yawitz, 41, has witnessed the pandemic’s impact on the restaurant industry from multiple fronts. As owner of the Gramophone in the Grove, he has experienced, first-hand, the revenue loss and associated challenges brought on by the pandemic. Additionally, Yawitz graciously put himself in the position of helping restaurants navigate the financial impact of COVID-19 as co-founder of the Gateway Resilience Fund, a program set up to get emergency funds into the hands of small businesses and their employees. Yawitz helped set up the fund almost immediately after last March’s shutdown when it became clear that state and federal funding were coming no time soon. 

“The independent restaurant, bar and music club industry is not an industry that thought it needed to have a lobbyist at city hall or Jefferson City because we’ve never needed a bailout before,” Yawitz says. “Other industries already had mechanisms in place for people to speak with a unified voice. What last March said to me is that independent restaurants needed this infrastructure already in place. What I realized was that, yes, people were looking around for answers and doing a lot of collaborations, but, as an industry, we needed that organizational structure to already exist.”

Yawitz is heartened by the action he’s seen his colleagues in St. Louis and around the country take to put this organizational infrastructure in place. He believes that the industry will be better positioned to speak with a unified voice should crisis strike again. As he explains, focusing his attention on macro efforts like this and the Gateway Resilience Fund was helpful in channeling his pent-up energy when the Gramophone shut down. 

Teitelbaum, too, speaks of the advocacy role that restaurateurs have been thrust into because of the pandemic. In December, he and a handful of local restaurant owners began advising St. Louis County health officials as to how to reopen inside dining safely – something he has particular expertise in since he invested thousands of dollars on a state-of-the-art chemical-free, medical grade water sanitation system along with plexiglass partitions and air purifiers, among other safety precautions. He also invested in a large tent and forced-air heaters that run on propane so that he could keep outdoor dining going in the winter.

“The amount of money we spend on propane is unbelievable,” Teitelbaum says. “It costs $500 to $600 every two days just to run all the outside heaters.”

Jacobs, Teitelbaum and Yawitz believe these major changes – increased outdoor dining, focus on carryout, enhanced sanitation protocols – will remain even on the other side of the pandemic’s acute phase. Jacobs points to her enhanced online presence and the opportunities afforded by 9 Mile Garden, a food truck park that opened last summer, as positive outgrowths of the difficult situation. 

Yawitz is hopeful that the crisis has been a wakeup call for the industry to form a united front when it comes to advocating for itself, and he sees that beginning to coalesce. 

Teitelbaum, too, is trying to remain positive about how the past year has forced him to think through his businesses in ways he might not have otherwise imagined. 

“Throughout the pandemic, we have honed the business to get it to where we want it,” Teitelbaum says. “For example, we really made sure everyone who works in the front of our house understood what we are doing and was trained properly in the culture we wanted. Our kitchen got completely revamped and turned into the team the chefs, when they came in a year ago, always wanted. We’ve used the time to do things we never had time to do before.”

Teitelbaum is optimistic that, eventually, business at his restaurants will rebound, though he has no idea what “normal” will look like once it’s safe for dining to be at full capacity.

“Normal won’t happen this year and I do question what normal will look like going forward,” Teitelbaum says. “I do think that at Herbie’s we will continue to have enclosed tent dining each year. Maybe not in the cold, cold months but people really liked it because it’s kind of romantic.”

As for that plexiglass, Teitelbaum is hopeful that restaurants will not need barriers in a year or two. However, if the twists and turns of the past year have taught him one thing, it’s that he should hold onto it, because you never know what will happen.

“I don’t even know what I will do with all of it,” Teitelbaum says. “I guess store it because God knows if we ever need it again, I’ve got $30,000 in plexiglass.”