Just a year ago, Ayal and Leah Amzel were celebrating the 20th anniversary of Yali’s Café. They opened the restaurant across the street from UC Berkeley’s North Campus in 1999, two weeks after they got married. Now, because of the Coronavirus pandemic, they’re hanging on by a thread.
Students would normally be flooding back for the fall semester, and Yali’s slow summer season would have given way to a vibrant back-to-school rush. This year, there’s only a trickle of takeout and delivery orders, with sales at 7% of what they were before Covid-19. Their two on-campus cafés remain closed.
In some ways, Ayal and Leah’s situation is similar to many restaurant owners and caterers who are struggling to stay afloat. But the pandemic’s effect on this family-owned business is intensified by the fact that most of the customers at Yali’s Café are students and staff at UC Berkeley. With so many students staying at home to study remotely, and most of the campus events they used to cater canceled, there are days when it’s hard to see their way through.
They’ve made it so far, with the help of an interest-free Coronavirus Impact loan from Hebrew Free Loan and a low-interest PPP loan from the Small Business Administration. Hebrew Free Loan came to their assistance in early April, when Ayal and Leah’s income dropped to almost nothing overnight. They were hard-pressed to cover living expenses for their family of five, including a daughter in college, while also juggling the costs of keeping the business going.
“When the shutdown hit there was a great unknown, and everything was falling apart. Hebrew Free Loan was there for us — with us — to help us weather the storm.”
Ayal and Leah have always seen Yali’s Café as a mom-and-pop business, anchored in the community in which it operates. For them, as for many of their customers and employees, the café isn’t just a place to get coffee. It’s a home away from home, where lasting relationships are built. While Ayal and Leah couldn’t avoid laying off all but one of their workers once shelter-in-place took effect, they launched an online fundraiser to offer the staff some security while the café was closed.
The future is still unknown for a restaurant tied to a college campus during a pandemic. But Ayal and Leah love their business, and everything it represents, and they’ll continue doing everything they can to keep it open until things get better.
Ayal grew up on a kibbutz and spent time in Europe as a young man, and he remembers the support he received from the Jewish community wherever he lived. Receiving help from Hebrew Free Loan during the pandemic is a continuation of that tradition: members of the Jewish community being there for each other, in good times and in bad.