The bagels stay, the chairs and tables go, and holiday catering survives.
Co-owner Heather Mojer opened Mamaleh’s, a popular Jewish deli in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2016, shut it down when the pandemic hit, and sacrificed table service to be able to re-open. Even as vaccinations ramp up, and the worst of the pandemic appears tantalizingly within reach, Mojer says that Mamaleh’s will remain a counter service-only operation. That comes with a downside: The deli will no longer be the gathering space for families it used to be. But it also brings Mojer and her co-owners some much-needed economic relief. What began as a public health precaution turned a money-losing operation into a solvent business.
Mamaleh’s is a Jewish deli that’s been in operation since 2016. Before the pandemic, we were doing breakfast, lunch, catering for offices, and some dinner and weekend catering for family get-togethers. Catering in Jewish culture is really big around the holidays. For instance, Passover that we just had was huge and always has been.
But we were actually really struggling to make the numbers work. I think there was maybe only one month or so in the whole time that we were open, that we actually didn’t lose money since 2016. It was getting pretty dire. We were borrowing a lot of money from our sister restaurants and family and just patching it together. We were kind of stuck.
We were busy, but our major issue was labor costs. I think it has to do with a few things. Partly, the food is labor intensive to make. And people don’t want to pay a lot for it. It’s hard to blame them – but a bagel takes three days to make and only costs two dollars.
Courtesy of Heather Mojer
In the early days of the pandemic, we closed all our restaurants. Although restaurants were allowed to continue to do takeout, sending people into the world to take the bus and prepare sandwiches seemed inessential. When we felt comfortable with different work safety practices, in June, 2020, we re-opened Mamaleh’s. We washed our hands at timed half-hour intervals, wore masks, and watched our distances. We implemented many other state and federal practices, but we kept a vigilant focus on these because they seemed to be the main vector of the disease.
At the time restaurants were not allowed to do indoor dining, and so we were forced to do a window service style, which suited Mamaleh’s really well, because we already had been wrapping bagels in paper, wrapping sandwiches in paper, and it wasn’t that much of a stretch to continue to do so.
We started noticing pretty quickly that with the floor staff missing from the equation, we were starting to see an improvement in our numbers. On top of the reduced labor budget, we were actually able to do more business without customers in the dining room.
We never realized that indoor dining was holding us back in terms of production. Our kitchen could only hold so many refrigerators, freezers, and unique pieces of gear like bagel slicers and humongous mixers for cream cheese. Now we can use portions of the dining room to hold these items. This Passover, we doubled our 2019 sales record. We were able to invite so many more people to order and not disappoint them with sellouts on some of the favorites, the things that you need like a Seder plate and all the sweet food.
We seem to really have gotten the right gears in place: Enough refrigeration to hold all the quarts of ball soup, for instance, and pints of cream cheese.
We don’t believe we will return to indoor dining. I think we could put tables inside, but more like a Starbucks-style where there’s tables and you can sit at them, but there’s no service.
We are a restaurant that’s welcoming to families and a lot of times it’s multigenerational families where you’ve got grandparents and grandchildren together at a table trying grandpa’s favorite chopped liver and dishes that are very important to Jewish culture and the Jewish experience. To be able to have a table in a shared space like a restaurant is a really valuable asset to the community. We are definitely sad that we’re not going to be able to share the memories like we have been able to in the past.
We see ourselves as providing a service to the community of Boston, and also as employers, but the business wasn’t financially feasible over the past few years. This new experiment that we were forced into has turned that around. For our numbers to change in the way that they have still doesn’t seem real. We got a pay decrease a couple of years ago—and we got our first raise a month ago. It gives us a lot of room to breathe.
(Note: In 2018, a former Mamaleh’s employee filed a lawsuit against the restaurant alleging sexual and racial discrimination by company leadership. The case was later settled. In an email, Mojer shared a company statement from 2019 categorically denying the allegations.)