St. Louis Jewish business owners work to weather the pandemic

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

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

I spent the last week talking to Jewish owners of small area businesses. Although the folks I interviewed work in a variety of industries, including food service, pet service, retail and party planning, each is understandably very concerned — and yes, that’s putting it mildly — over mounting losses after having to either close their business or drastically alter the way they operate it because of the coronavirus. And yet what struck me most was how they’ve found ways to stay positive (not always, but mostly), support one another and push forward. 

The power of gratitude

Take Aaron Teitelbaum, for example. He owns three local restaurants, upscale Herbie’s in Clayton and two locations of the Kingside Diner, one in Clayton and the other in the Central West End. When he saw his businesses decline by up to 50% the week of March 9, he and his staff tried curbside service “to combat the fact that people were starting to get scared,” he said. Five days later, Teitelbaum decided to shut down all three restaurants.

“For the safety of our people, I couldn’t in good faith say I would be home and not let my employees be home. If I’m not willing to do it, I shouldn’t make my employees do it,” he explained. “Currently, we are paying all of our salaried employees and we’ve set up computers so we can help our hourly employees get unemployment.” 

His restaurants have roughly 150 employees combined, 15 of whom are salaried. He vows to rehire the ones who were laid off as soon as he is able.

Like several small business owners interviewed, Teitelbaum has applied for forgiveable federal loans designated for businesses with less than 500 employees to keep his restaurants afloat.  In fact, he says he is “applying for everything that’s out there,” be it specific to help restaurants or small businesses. He also secured some high-interest loans prior to closing to help pay salaries and other expenses related to his businesses.

The 45-year-old husband and father admits that he has some tough days but says most are good. He sleeps well at night. He’s doing yoga, meditating and posts a daily “social gratitude” on Facebook such as this one on Sunday:

“Gratitude is an attitude. If we live in it, it is hard to live in fear and anger. When I am grateful my soul is more at peace. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems in my life it just means I am equipped to handle whatever is put in front of me. One day at a time. Sometimes one minute at a time.” 

Teitelbaum has been through extended restaurant closures before, most notably in New York after 9/11 when he worked for French chef and restauranteur Daniel Boulud. His restaurants were closed for six weeks following the terrorist attacks. 

“It took a while to rebuild but the difference with that was insurance kicked in,” said Teitelbaum. “After the SARS outbreak, insurance won’t cover a pandemic.”

Nevertheless, Teitelbaum is certain the time will come when he can reopen all of his restaurants. It’s not a matter of if, he says, but rather when.

‘Tis the season

Particularly hard hit are seasonal businesses like Serendipity, which sells delicious homemade ice cream to 30 or so local eateries, country clubs and hotels. It also operates a brick-and-mortar shop in Webster Groves. 

The business is owned by Beckie Jacobs, 55, who has always hit me as someone who never met a stranger. She exudes warmth and positivity. That said, she admits these days it’s hard to stay upbeat when you’ve been gut punched in your pocketbook.

“High season” for her business is from mid-March to July 1. She shut down operations at the store on March 21. Since then, she’s gotten only two orders – both from area country clubs offering their members curbside food pick-up.

“I would have made a ton of money in the last few weeks, especially because the weather has been so nice. But what can I do?” said Jacobs, who belongs to Congregation Shaare Emeth. “It is my ultimate goal to reopen as soon as possible. I’m applying for grants and loans so I can at least pay my employees who I owe payroll to. But right now, I just can’t afford it.”

Lori Shifter also is concerned that being closed will cut into one of her business’ busiest holidays, Mother’s Day, on May 10. As owner of The Silver Lady, which sells artisan silver jewelry at stores in the Central West End, Delmar Loop and Maplewood, Shifter says she plans to send emails to customers gently reminding them that they can purchase gifts online (at or buy gift cards.  That kind of support right now, she says, would be extremely helpful. 

“Before all of this happened, we had just been on a buying trip and have a lot of great, fresh inventory people are anxious to see,” said Shifter, who has been in business for 34 years. “I’m the eternal optimist, but I am sure there are (businesses) that won’t survive this shutdown. There is a big core group that want our commodity so that’s good, but this (situation) does have us looking at where are we going in the future.”

Sticking together, by staying apart

Randy Vines and his identical twin, Jeff, own STL Style, a quirky T-shirt and apparel store located at Cherokee Street and Compton Avenue. The two had planned a street party on March 28 to celebrate 10 years in business at that location. But it was canceled along with everything else when the store closed to the public earlier in March because of COVID-19. 

So the brothers returned to their online roots — they started their business that way in 2001 — and are selling limited edition “Flatten the Curve St. Louis” T-shirts online (at, to benefit the Gateway Resilience Fund. It’s providing short-term financial relief to employees and owners of local independent bars, restaurants and shops.

“It makes us feel good that we are not profiting off of a crisis,” said Randy Vines, 41. “But hopefully, what goes around comes around. We’re contributing to the pot that we undoubtedly will need a piece of as well.”

The Vines have managed to retain their staff of four, who take turns processing custom T-shirt sales and filling online orders (so only one person is at the shop at a time). “We are doing everything we can to take care of them before we take care of ourselves because we wouldn’t have made it for 10 years without them,” said Vines, adding that while business is slower than usual, “we are making ends meet.” 

“Who knows whether that will dry up soon or not,” he added. “We expect it won’t last forever.”

Like Teitelbaum, the Vines brothers have no doubts they will reopen their store once they are safely allowed to do so. 

“It’s in our DNA,” Vines said. “We wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves if we didn’t have this outlet.”  

Puppy love

The fact that typically busy working people are now staying home certainly has stymied pet sitting services. Iris Salsman, owner of The Pet Nanny, went from walking 10 dogs a day to walking none.

“Business has evaporated,” said Salsman, 73. “No one has a need for my services. In a space of one day all my business died. I went from having a regular income to zero income.” 

Salsman was supposed to have her hip replaced in early April but because it’s considered elective surgery, it was canceled. She’s in pain, lives alone in Creve Coeur and is making-due with social security and some savings, she says, cutting costs where she can. She even jokes: “It’s not like I can go anyplace. I talk on the telephone a lot.”

Life may be stressful, but she hasn’t lost her sense of humor or her compassion, especially for “her dogs.” She misses them.

“That was the best part of the job. I could go see Daisy and Murphy and Louie,” she said. “I am hopeful my clients will come back to me when this is over.” 

Ann Mayer Eisen echoes Salsman’s sentiments. She and her husband, Jack, own three small businesses between them, including Sitter Hound, which they began six years ago. The Shaare Emeth couple, along with their team of sitters, take care of dogs overnight while their owners are out of town. But now that people are at home and not traveling, their business, too, has been grounded.

Nevertheless, Mayer Eisen, 53, is not complaining; in fact, she says she’s keeping very busy “cooking, cleaning, Zooming with family, sewing face masks, doing yard work and FaceTiming with my granddaughter in Connecticut.” She’s posted Facebook messages to several doctors she knows, explaining she’s available to sit for their dogs, and offering free pick up and drop off.

Like Salsman, Mayer Eisen, says one of the hardest parts to the stay-at home quarantine is not seeing the dogs she has gotten to know over the years. In fact, she misses them so much, she recently arranged a Zoom call with her clients. 

“Everyone had their dogs next to them on the couch or in their laps,” she said. “We had everyone introduce themselves and their dogs. It was very funny to see everyone and for everyone to see each other.”

Life’s a party, until it’s not

Simcha Lourie, 42, owns a party planning business that focuses on weddings, b’nai mitzvahs and other large-scale events. Rimma Bandoim owns Video Gate Studio, where she photographs the kind of parties that Lourie plans as well as engagements and family portraits. The two women work independent of each other but right now each is engaged in a similar game of chess, moving around events that were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“What’s struck me is how the (party planning) industry has rallied together to take care of clients and been as flexible as possible to get events rescheduled to satisfy everyone,” said Lourie, a United Hebrew congregant who has been in business for 13 years. “I’ve had to reschedule events that used to be on Saturday for a lot more Fridays. I had a bar mitzvah scheduled for a Saturday that we’re doing on a Thursday later in the summer because you can read Torah (publicly) on that day.”

Bandoim, a Russian immigrant who has owned her Creve Coeur business with her husband, Isaak, for roughly 20 years, usually takes vacation in July. This year, the couple canceled their plans with the hope of rebooking some photo shoots that had been scheduled for March, April and May.

“We are managing the best we can, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “This situation is not easy on families as they have to reschedule their services with temples that may already have services scheduled on the other dates as well as reschedule their parties with reception venues. It’s a difficult situation for both families and vendors. The great thing about our community is everyone tries to work together to help one another.”

Lourie wholeheartedly agrees. By the same token, she notes that business has been slower than usual because everyone “is focused on what’s happening now and no one is sure when people can gather together.”

That said, she is confident that this, too, shall pass — eventually. “And when it does, people will want to celebrate,” she said. “I’m trying to be optimistic. We need good things to look forward to. 

“My job is to make people’s dreams come true and that isn’t going to change.”