TEANECK, NJ — Shalom Yehudiel knows his recent success is unusual for an industry in which many of his peers are struggling to hold on.
So perhaps its fitting that The Humble Toast chef and owner’s most visible culinary achievement came not in 2020, but in 2019, when he filmed his appearance on the Food Network’s “Chopped.”
On Tuesday at 9 p.m., Yehudiel will become the first chef to have his showcase dishes certified kosher by a rabbi in what he calls a “proud” moment.
“They put us in front of the mystery baskets, and they said go. Basically from that moment on, and I’m not going to lie to you, I don’t remember anything,” he said, adding a laugh.
“It was a little intimidating, I’m not going to lie, but then we just started cooking.”
Cooking, even amid a global pandemic, has led to culinary success back home in Teaneck.
Not only is he happy to say that his flagship Teaneck restaurant, The Humble Toast, is comfortably operating, but he’s planning to open another venture and beginning to operate a food truck which will deliver his menu of sandwiches to New York City.
Still, things haven’t been easy, and in March that familiar feeling of intimidation returned once businesses were forced to close at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
In speaking to his staff, Yehudiel masked his uneasiness with his usual positivity. It's not that he didn't believe what he was saying, just that he, like almost everyone else, had no idea what was coming next.
“I put on my best face because I wanted [the staff] to feel confident, but deep inside I didn’t know. The whole world was uncertain, who am I to decide everything is going to be okay,” he said.
Relative to some of their peers in the restaurant business, The Humble Toast is doing OK, Yehudiel reports.
He credits a bootstrapping, adaptability or death mentality for their recent steadiness, which lends itself quite nicely to a 2020 altered in more ways than we yet know.
But bootstrapping, in any industry, is never the lone reason for continued success. Adaptability always comes with a bit of luck.
Is your menu suitable for to-go orders? Can you retain your staff? And, most simply, are people still coming to your restaurant?
“You have to have the right kind of menu, the right kind of concept, in order to adapt to a primarily to-go and pick-up system,” Yehudiel said.
To say that restaurants are struggling is to say that the sky is blue and the sun is hot, so think about it this way: Shalom tells a story of success. His feeling of uneasiness at the onset of the pandemic has now pivoted to a general sense that things will work out.
Still, the restaurant is making less money and employs fewer people than it did pre-pandemic. And the new space they’ll occupy? It only came available after their neighbors were forced to close their own restaurant.
Yehudiel is a restaurant guy through and through. He feels at home in busy kitchens, having worked at breakneck pace for Disney to serving up kosher sandwiches and fries in Teaneck. But that second home can be a vicious business with high stakes, he admits.
“The restaurant business is very simple, you need cash flow to survive. Once that cash flow stops for an extended amount of time it’s very tough,” he said.
In the past few months, government officials have extended occasional olive branches.
Outdoor dining has provided a marginal return to normalcy for some restaurants, but as fall and winter close in on cold weather cities like Teaneck, how sustainable is that model?
In Teaneck, “Restaurant Week” put an exclamation point on the township’s efforts to help small businesses, according to Deputy Mayor Elie Y. Katz.
Since the start of the pandemic, the goal was “to reach out to as many merchants as possible, find out what their pain points were and respond accordingly,” Katz said.
Still, restaurants have been forced to go it alone in a lot of ways, and some have paid the price.
“I feel like the restaurant groups and the restaurants that were able to continue staying afloat through this will eventually get back to where they were,” said Yehudiel. “Unfortunately, there’s going to be a lot of places, mom-and-pop places, even corporate places, they’re not going to survive.”
Teaneck is no New York City, but its restaurant scene is diverse in its offerings.
“We’ve got the entire world represented, for the most part,” said Katz.
The Humble Toast is part of that diverse scene, and Yehudiel understands the impact community-based restaurants have on the culture of cities and towns.
So he’ll be the first to tell you that as much as he gains from surviving — and to some extent thriving — during the pandemic, Teaneck, as a community, still suffers from the familiar haunts that have served their last table.
When asked to describe what that loss means, Yehudiel wasn’t short on impacted areas. Teaneck’s culture, it’s art scene and general ambiance will be affected, as will many residents whose work weeks are capped off with dinners and drinks out with friends and loved ones.
“To lose a restaurant that’s popular, that people love, in any sort of city or neighborhood is psychologically draining for the people that love the place, and just takes away a whole lot of art and love from the area,” he said.
The Humble Toast, according to Yehudiel, is well-positioned to continue to providing food and ambiance to Teaneck residents.
They had an adaptable menu, willing ownership and were able to retain a vast majority of their staff.
Not everyone will be so lucky.
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