Kosher catering jobs for large gatherings are scarce when large gatherings themselves are not "kosher" during the pandemic. But the kosher caterers who serve Chicago have been resilient and creative.
"When event catering reached a standstill," said Linda Neiman, president of Zelda's Catering, "we had to act quickly and creatively," to maintain their staff. "We also understood that people across the community were falling into sudden crises of their own."
For years, Zelda's has provided meals for the JUF Uptown Cafe, upwards of 18,000 annually. Since the pandemic prevented clients from visiting the Café, Zelda's began packaging the clients' meals to go. "We truly love the Cafe, and are proud of our partnership," Neiman said.
Zelda's has also provided holiday meals statewide through Chabad, participated in projects for synagogues, and launched two new anti-hunger partnerships. "Being able to multiply our charitable work during the pandemic, in ways that will persist after it, has been gratifying," she said.
Zelda's largest effort has been its introduction of At Your Table! restaurant-style take-out meals, "created by the same chefs, using the same proprietary recipes," she said. At Your Table's new website will allow for nationwide shipping.
Other kosher caterers have similarly retooled. "We have shifted to delivery and take-out," noted Stephanie Harris, general manager of The Sandwich Club. "We have always done parties, weddings, and bar and bat mitzvahs. Now, we have made deliveries as far as Kenosha," an hour away from its Skokie location.
"We have an updated menu. We added some new wraps, a new burger, and gluten-free items," she said. "Plus, for the first time in 20 years, we built a patio. It adds 24 seats, at socially distant tables."
In some cases, take-out menus became Shabbat-in-a-box options. Rabbi David Segal, of Goldman Segal Kosher Caterers, is proud of the variety of Shabbat boxes the company offers: "We started making Shabbat boxes, at first for 4, then for 2, now for 1. Some are bi-weekly, but we are working toward weekly. The cuisine changes every week; we have done Mexican, Chinese, and Southern Shabbat meals, for example."
"We have about 250 people who we regularly deliver Shabbat boxes to," he said. "This is a service to people who are shut in, both older people and younger families. We are trying to reinvent ourselves, but as we see more places opening up, we feel things are moving in a positive direction," he added.
Michael Kirschner's Starr Kosher Catering/Chicago Tailgators also provides Shabbat-in-a-box packages, often to those in need. They provide 100 deliveries twice a month, to clients of various organizations, he reported. "They can't have them come in, to feed [their clients], so we deliver." They provided similar meals for Purim, and will do the same for Passover.
Additionally, he said, "We have always done school lunches," but now it's one of the company's few regular sources of income.
Yet another source is distribution of produce- specifically, that of lettuce. Because it can contain insects, lettuce must be meticulously checked to pass kosher certification. As this is a laborious process, Kirschner has-since the onset of the pandemic-had his mashgiach (kosher consultant) inspect lettuce for others. "We provide lettuce for a grocery store, three restaurants, and a wholesaler. And it's a mitzvah we do for certain organizations."
Kirschner is also sensitive to the impact the pandemic is having on his own customers: "The hardest part is when people have a simcha, and they just want to be with their friends and families."
Still, he is hopeful about the impact of mass vaccinations. "Once they get the shots out, business will jump back," he predicted, adding, "We need to get back to work."
Chicago's other kosher caterers are very much open for business and include Circle Chicago Catering, GR8 Event, Tables of Elegance, The Great Chicago Food & Beverage Company, and Shallots Bistro.