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Changing with the coronavirus times
Coronavirus 2020

Changing with the coronavirus times

Edison caterer expands delivery, offers healthy kosher cuisine

Michelle Berger
Michelle Berger

Like many businesses during the Covid-19 crisis, Naturally Kosher, a catering business that focuses on healthy food and local produce, was forced into a corner when the pandemic drove several of its product lines to a halt, including school lunches and catering for kiddushes, in-home events, and parties — including a bat mitzvah celebration for 200 people. And many people, according to Michelle Berger of Edison, who owns the business with her husband, Aleksandr, “don’t realize there is a shortage of meat and there’s going to be a bigger shortage.”

To adjust, Naturally Kosher expanded the range of its free deliveries of Shabbat meals and added midweek meal options and vegan fare.

It’s challenging to change on the fly, but change is nothing new to Berger. Before she started Naturally Kosher, she had been catering private, high-end events as a side business on and off for a dozen years. But she and Aleksandr turned in a new direction based on what they had learned from their previous business, which they had to close.

“During that time we really recognized that a lot of people out there, regular working-class people, have no options. Nothing is being offered to them,” she told NJJN.

Boxed lunches for the last bat mitzvah kiddush Naturally Kosher catered before the stay-at-home order, featuring vegan grilled vegetable wraps and grilled chicken wraps, a salad, brownie, and fruit cup so congregants wouldn’t have to share utensils. Photo by Michelle Berger

Berger had very positive memories of the family-owned-and-operated farms she had been familiar with growing up in Highland Park. She had also long been dismayed at available kosher meals. “There is pretty much no decent Shabbos takeout food to find,” she said. “Everything is covered in sugar, mayo, salt, and a half-pound of chicken bouillon powder, and that’s not food! There’s no reason why we should get the short end of the stick, the lesser-quality food.”

Naturally Kosher reflects all these influences and a strong belief in healthy food. They use local produce to keep their carbon footprint low, when possible they use organic food to avoid herbicides, and they try not to cook with preservatives or flavorings like bouillon powders. Also, Shabbat meals, which must be ordered by noon Wednesday, are cooked from Thursday night into Friday.

“We need to have food that is affordable and really, really fresh — not cooked on Tuesday,” Berger said.

Their use of social media and online-payment options that avoid credit card fees has saved them money and helped them get through the crisis to this point, and they have been delivering easily warmed food for people recovering from Covid-19 or otherwise in need. Berger is also trying to help her customers with other food-related problems, from stress eating to lack of cooking skills.

“Our whole thing is everyone needs to do their part to get through this,” she said.

A wedding cake that was a compromise between a bride, who wanted “a really rustic” cake that looked homemade, and her mom, who wanted “a very traditional tiered cake with flowers and piping work,” according to Michelle Berger.

All of the Bergers’ parents are Carpathian immigrants; Alex is the child of a Holocaust survivor and Michelle is a grandchild of survivors. “All of my grandparents had numbers,” she said.

From age 9 Berger knew she would be a caterer, but her parents insisted that she go to Rutgers University and get a degree in psychology, which she did. “Being a good Carpathian girl, I was doing what my parents wanted,” she said.

As she couldn’t go to her dream school, Johnson and Wales University College of Culinary Arts, she arranged for what amounted to an apprenticeship with a caterer she knew, bartering work for training. She was also expanding her horizons. For example, she convinced a fellow student, who was German but from Jamaica, to teach her how to make a food she was eating that “smelled amazing.” Or reaching out to her mother’s best friend, who was from Georgia, to teach her how to make the authentic Bukharan lamb plov (not the Carpathian version).

“There are certain nuances you are not going to learn except from a person who has been doing it for generations,” Berger said.

In her early 20s, soon after she and Alex, a master butcher, were married, both worked for the Rubashkin family’s meat business. Once, when they were working unusually long hours just before a holiday, they came home at 11 p.m. to an empty fridge. Michelle went to ShopRite, the only store open, to pick up cottage cheese and crackers.

Michelle Berger, her husband, Alex, and their two daughters. Photo by Alex Berger

“I see all this oven-ready stuff in the treif section,” she said. “As I’m looking at this, I’m thinking, ‘I’m a wife, a mom, I work full-time and plus — how come I don’t have access to this?’”

So at age 23, she met with Sholom Minkowitz, son-in-law of Aaron Rubashkin, and proposed developing an entire line of prepared kosher foods. He accepted her proposal and brought her in to develop it.

Despite the creative modifications to their business during the pandemic, Berger said some weeks they still struggle.

“You start to worry, but I feel like my husband and I have pulled through so much already together in our wonderful 20 years,” she said.

She told NJJN they have learned from their challenges over the years, and with so many Holocaust survivors in their family, “we have literal genetic strength running through our veins. They have survived the worst humanity had to offer. If they survived that, we can survive anything.”

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