Masks are coming off and the doors to normalcy are opening. That’s good news for couples getting married. But with a limited summer calendar and a backlog of rescheduled simchas from pandemic cancellations, vendors are working hard to keep up with the demand. “Everybody wants to party every day and every night,” said Naftali Abenaim, owner of Mocha Bleu on Queen Anne Road in Teaneck. “I can’t keep up with requests.”
Mocha Bleu, an upscale dairy restaurant with exquisite pareve pastries, is inundated with calls for sheva brachot dinners. “Weddings are happening full steam ahead,” said Abenaim. “We’re getting requests for sheva brachot celebrations all the time.”
The Moroccan-themed party room at Mocha Bleu is a sought-after spot for sheva brachot, bar and bat mitzvah parties and brissim. It’s completely set apart from the restaurant seating and can hold about 45 people. Sheva brachot packages start at $45 per person; brissim with full shul setup begin at $25 per person; and full buyout packages for the restaurant begin at $5,995 for 100 people.
Mocha Bleu is even hosting smaller weddings. When the entire restaurant is rented out, including the party room and outdoor space, there’s room for up to 185 people. The configuration can be changed to accommodate people who are still strict about social distancing and those who feel that with all or most guests vaccinated, the seating can be closer.
“People have realized they don’t have to spend 100k on a wedding,” said Abenaim. “They can have a beautiful simcha and be happy with an affordable venue, nice presentation and great food.” There’s another reason for smaller weddings. “I’ve heard parents give the couple the option of having a smaller wedding and taking the money they would have spent for a house.” In today’s real estate market, that’s a very practical idea.
Gabe Gilbert, managing partner and chef at Sender’s Smoke Joint, said the pandemic propelled them to start sheva brachot celebrations in the tent on West Englewood Avenue, and they’ve become a big hit. “I have four parties booked for June; we’re a relatively new restaurant but that hasn’t happened before,” he said.
When the pandemic was at its height, the sheva brachot parties were no larger than 10. Now they can have full capacity, which is 30-40 people. A curtain keeps the party private. Gilbert handles all the paper goods, but hosts can bring in their own centerpieces and decorations. Smaller groups that want a more casual feel can use the backyard of the restaurant, where meals are served on umbrella-shaded picnic tables and guests can gather round a fire pit. Disco lighting provides a festive atmosphere.
Gilbert has an extensive catering background and put together several fixed menus. Options include boneless rib eye steak; a smokehouse platter; chicken cordon bleu with pastrami-stuffed herbed mashed potatoes or grilled Cajun salmon; plus two choices for a kids’ menu. With his long experience in restaurant and event logistics, he keeps the restaurant open and running smoothly, with diners separated from the party.
Ma’adan, a retail and catering business on Cedar Lane in Teaneck, is experiencing a boom in sheva brachot events. Owner Jonny Shore said he has two on Memorial Day and several booked for June. Ma’adan never stopped catering small gatherings through the pandemic. But since Purim, with vaccinations underway, the events have become more numerous and the size is getting larger. Hosts are beginning to forego individually packaged food boxes and return to platters. “It’s very comforting to get back to normalcy,” said Shore.
Asked if he can point to any trends in what people are ordering, he said people are asking for healthier ingredients—less salt and sugar, with some or all dishes gluten-free. “About 70% want staples they have loved for decades and 30% want brand new,” said Shore. He credits his experienced staff with being versatile and creative, adept at the usuals and new items. Friday nights, people still gravitate to traditional fleishig dishes. But for the next day, Shore can be more innovative. A family catering an aufruf wanted the Shabat day meal to be pareve, with cold soups and fresh salads.
Many dishes Shore created for parties will occasionally find their way into the store, like smoked brisket, sausages or prime rib. Other items, like a fresh Asian spinach salad he made for a Shabbat lunch, are only for catered events where they can be made right before serving.
Shore is looking forward to a sheva brachot barbecue on June 28, following the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz. He’ll be making grilled Miami ribs and London broil, smoked sausage, watermelon, mint and heirloom tomato salad, jicama mango coleslaw and faro and leek salad. That’s just a partial list. “We’ll be doing summery, refreshing things that are colorful and give the event a little more pizazz.”
Shore said he can arrange complete events with the help of a staffing agency he’s worked with for 20 years. For more involved dinners, he prefers to work with party planners, so he can concentrate on the food. “Party planners add a lot of value. They make the event look better and run more smoothly. They make sure the venue has people to handle all logistics.”
Shore knows how difficult it is for a family to make a simcha during COVID—he was one of them. “I have a deep understanding of how much more work it is to make an event these days, having made my son’s bar mitzvah this year,” he said. “We’re not all the way back yet; we’re getting there. I understand on a personal level what has to be done.”
By Bracha Schwartz