Although the US restaurant industry has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Israeli-American chef Alon Shaya is still finding ways to help people in need.
As head of Pomegranate Hospitality, Shaya is the owner of a pair of modern Israeli restaurants — Saba, in New Orleans; and Safta, in Denver. Their names correspond, respectively, to the Hebrew words for grandfather and grandmother; Shaya has cited his Israeli saba and savta, who lived in Yafo, as being enormous influences in his life.
His restaurants, like many others nationwide, have been affected by coronavirus restrictions. Saba and Safta have each paused the delivery and takeout services they offered when in-room dining became impossible. The staff at both locations has shrunk — an unfortunate refrain in the industry. However, none of this has stopped the chef from making a difference.
In his hometown of New Orleans, Shaya and his wife, Emily Shaya, prepare meals at Saba which they serve to medical professionals at hospitals affiliated with Tulane University. Meanwhile, Shaya has partnered Safta with the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, a nationwide effort to provide not only meals, but necessary supplies, to furloughed or laid-off employees. Safta’s remaining staff prepare not just Israeli cuisine but other international food, including Indian, Mexican and Italian.
“With everything going on in the world, and here in our own neighborhoods, it was just a very high-stress, emotional time for all of us,” Shaya told The Times of Israel. “We thought of ways we could take care of our team, our community — things we could do as front-liners, as cooks and servers just to help nourish the community.”
New Orleans has been harder-hit than Denver during the coronavirus pandemic in terms of cases and deaths, Shaya said. He laments the hundreds of thousands of people who thronged the Crescent City during Mardi Gras.
“Soon after that, we realized the seriousness of what was about to happen,” he said. “I feel like Mardi Gras definitely helped to cause part of the big problem we have in New Orleans.”
Not his first crisis rodeo
Shaya has made himself part of the New Orleans food scene. As a chef, he helped the city through a previous challenge — Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After initially evacuating, he returned to make red beans and rice for first responders and people who were rescued from their rooftops.
Part of living in New Orleans is that we always have kind of enormous adverse situations
“It’s what really helped me believe in New Orleans, fall in love with New Orleans, become loyal to it,” Shaya said. “I’ve always felt New Orleans is my forever home.” And, he said, “part of living in New Orleans is that we always have kind of enormous adverse situations, whether it’s Hurricane Katrina or the BP oil spill and now the coronavirus.”
At Saba, Alon and Emily Shaya work 14 hours a day cooking and boxing up meals for medical professionals. They deliver over 100 meals a day to doctors and nurses.
“My wife is an amazing and positive source in our lives,” Shaya said. “She keeps us on track. We stay very busy, really focus on not just sitting around watching the news all day.”
Although they are the only employees still working at Saba, they not only get meals out, they complete other chores around the restaurant. “That’s helped time go by quickly,” Shaya said.
He said that no one comes inside the restaurant other than his wife and himself, and that they both use masks, gloves and “a lot of sanitizer.” He added, “We do our best to keep clean as much as we can all the time.”
At Safta, head chef Josh Gordon is part of a contingent of four staff members. “I think they feel very empowered and very happy they can help their colleagues in the industry, and all of Colorado and Denver,” Shaya said.
They feel very empowered they can help their colleagues in the industry, and all of Colorado and Denver
They’re doing that through Shaya’s partnership with the Restaurant Workers Relief Program — a network of restaurants-turned-food kitchens spearheaded by Kentucky-based chef Ed Lee and his LEE Initiative. The program currently has 19 locations across the country.
For seven days a week, Safta operates a drive-through service in the parking lot, giving bags of food and supplies to people who need them. The menu includes burritos with local meat, sausage and cheese, roast chicken with vegetables, schnitzel, hummus, and comfort food like pastrami sandwiches and pasta salad.
“[Lee] asked if we would want to become a relief center for hospitality workers,” Shaya recalled. “It just took one conversation with me and the Pomegranate team. It’s a really great way to help our colleagues in the industry, help keep people employed and comfort the stranger.”
As Shaya notes, “restaurant workers have been disproportionately affected, because we depend on showing up to work every day at the restaurant.”
“Our restaurants are closed,” he said. “We can’t work from home. It’s not like we can open up a laptop and get all our work done. We need people in the dining room, cooks in the kitchen… It’s what sustains us, and right now the small, small percentage of people able to continue making income during this time is very few, very lucky.”
Yet he stressed caution in discussing when and how restaurants might reopen.
“I think we need more time as a society,” Shaya said. “We have to just focus on our personal health, social distancing. Everyone has to focus on that right now.”
In general, he said, “We have a huge challenge to face, because a restaurant at 50 percent capacity does not work when you have to pay 100% of the rent, the water bill, the trash pickup.”
A restaurant at 50 percent capacity does not work when you have to pay 100% of the rent, the water bill, the trash pickup
“I worry that we will face a great challenge,” Shaya said. “We’ll continue to think of ways to earn revenue not in the dining room, through takeout, delivery, shipping food to people around the country, looking at a lot of different options, how we can sustain our business. We’re going to have to change. It’s going to be a drastic change.”
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