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Jewish Journal

Bye-Bye Buys

The weak economy affects sales at local Jewish businesses.


by Sophia Fischer

November 22, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Signs hang in a window inviting shoppers into a liquidation sale at a store that has declared bankruptcy protection.

Signs hang in a window inviting shoppers into a liquidation sale at a store that has declared bankruptcy protection.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the resulting weak economy and high unemployment have been affecting Los Angeles Jewish businesses in a variety of ways.

There are no official statistics yet, but a random sampling of local businesses revealed that many have experienced a drastic drop in business. Others have seen an increase in the sale of certain items. All are watching the market closely.

"A lot of people are in danger of going out of business. The small entrepreneur running small profit margins is vulnerable," said Claudia Finkel, vice president of Programs and Services for Jewish Vocational Service, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. "All you have to do is look down Wilshire or San Vicente and see lots of 'for lease' signs. That signifies loss of jobs. Those people are no longer going out to lunch or to the dry cleaners. It's a neighborhood ripple effect."

Consumers are watching their pocketbooks, even if both husband and wife are employed and maintaining their income levels. Major purchases, such as travel plans or a new car, are being put on hold, and going out to dinner means a less pricey restaurant than they might normally go to.

"They may be feeling anxious watching the changes in the economy," Finkel said. "There's no question in my mind that things will get better, but in the meantime, all of these businesses are at risk and will continue to be if things keep going the way they are."

In the food sector, the prognosis is mixed, with most seeing a marked decline. At Pico Kosher Deli, on Pico, the lunch and dinner crowd has been holding steady, said waitress Elizabeth Panamino. But down the street at Little Jerusalem, sales are usually slower after the High Holy Day rush, but not by this much, manager Avraham Shamoil said.

"Business is down, for sure, by maybe 40 percent. I think it's a combination of people scared to come out and not wanting to spend money when things are unsure," Shamoil said.

Simon Elmaleh, owner of Simon's Cafe, in Encino, believes that part of the reason his business is down by almost 50 percent is because it is a Mediterranean restaurant.

"There may be some fear. Maybe people will go to what they see as the safest place. They are also watching what they're spending. They are worried about the future," Elmaleh said.

On the catering side, things are slow as well, although weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs remain on schedule.

"People are still having events, but I think they are a little bit more cost-conscious, perhaps not spending as much as they have in the past," said Kim Cartaino, director of hotel sales for the Warner Center Marriott Hotel, in Woodland Hills.

Loss of corporate business for local caterers has been staggering, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Joann Roth-Oseary, owner of Someone's in the Kitchen, in Tarzana. Immediately after Sept. 11, 13 corporate events were canceled.

"My kind of business is hard hit because people don't have to have a party. Everyone's struggling: musicians, florists, limo services," said Roth-Oseary, who does a lot of work for the entertainment industry. "We're scrambling to try to hold everything together. But we're Jews, so we're tough. We cannot lay down to this. We have to pick ourselves up and go on."

When the Emmy Awards were twice-canceled and rescheduled on a smaller scale, Michael Stern, the president of Regal Rents, Inc., in El Segundo, one of the largest party rental businesses in the country, saw his biggest job disappear. The wedding and b'nai mitzvah business has remained intact, he said, but a large part of his business, which comes from the studios, has been slow.

"Things are uncertain at the moment because who knows what's going to happen next, but it's definitely getting better," Stern said. "In my experience with recessions, the first thing people do when they start feeling better is to go to sporting events and have parties."

With Chanukah quickly approaching, there is hope that customers will return for what is traditionally one of the busiest sales seasons for many Jewish businesses. Some businesses are coming up with imaginative incentives to entice reluctant shoppers. At Abi's Judaica, in Agoura Hills and Tarzana, business has slowed by about 50 percent. Manager Bobbi Benjamin came up with the idea to donate 5 percent of store sales, from the 11th of each month, to the families of victims of the terrorist attacks. She also asked the owner of the Agoura Hills strip mall where Abi's Judaica is located to match the store's donation.

"It would give us one special day each month where we could relate to what happened and feel like we're making a difference," Benjamin said. "The owners of these strip malls have to come up with something to help us, especially going into the holiday season."

Kosher Take-Out in Encino was struggling even before Sept. 11, but business does seem to be worse than before, according to owner Yossi Rabinov. To boost sales, Rabinov has begun to sell family packages for Shabbat dinner, entire meals including everything from challah to dessert.

"The mood around is that everything is slow, including Jewish business," Rabinov said. "I had the idea for the Shabbat packages even before all of this was going on, but maybe this will help," he said.

Other businesses have noticed a change in what customers are buying. At Shalom House Fine Judaica, in Woodland Hills, owner David Cooperman has seen an increase in purchases of home-based activity items including Shabbat kiddush cups and challah trays. Books on basic Judaism and Bibles have also been in demand.

"I think people are going back to their roots, looking for some spirituality in these uncertain times," Cooperman said.

At Atara's Hebrew Book & Gift Center on Fairfax, sales of the Torah, Zohar, Chumash and Talmud, have been brisk, among both Jews and non-Jews.

"We're seeing a lot of interest in Judaism," said a salesperson named Devora who declined to give her last name. "We're seeing more newly religious people, but also Spanish and Chinese customers coming in to buy the 'Tanakh.'"

Some stores have served as meeting places for support and comfort. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, customers came in to talk.

"Several friends called on me to close the store on Sept. 11. But as a Jewish store, it was important to stay open. This is what Israel lives through everyday and their stores stay open. I got a tremendous amount of support, with people coming in and hugging each other," said Tina Oberman, owner of Gallery Judaica, on Westwood Boulevard.

It has been the same at Shalom House Fine Judaica.

"Customers are running into friends and family here, coming into the store to talk, kibitz," Cooperman said.

One business owner suggests that the loss of business is media inspired.

"There's a way of reporting something and making it worse," said Simon Rutberg, owner of Hatikvah Music International on Fairfax Avenue. "Instead, we should look at what we're not stopping doing as a result of everything that's going on and give people hope."

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