Gourmet Tel Aviv eatery and social business Liliyot has been called Israel’s "very best kosher restaurant" but it is equally concerned with nourishing at-risk teens.
By Avigayil Kadesh
If the high school dropouts trained at Tel Aviv’s gourmet eatery Liliyot go on to careers in food services, that would be the icing on the cake.
The primary aim of this social business is to grant them tools for success in any profession, such as the ability to: Work with others; accept authority and responsibility; complete assigned tasks; and arrive on time, clean and properly attired. Many of them have never before learned strategies for becoming useful, contributing citizens. "It’s more the human skills that we are looking to impart," says Re’ut Shaul, Liliyot marketing manager. "You can’t teach those things in a classroom. That’s why this project is so special."
In collaboration with ELEM, a national non-profit rehabilitation organization for Israeli youth, the restaurant provides up to 18 months of instruction, supervision and employment for at-risk teens every year.
Located in Asia House, a luxury office building adjacent to Tel Aviv’s art museum and opera house, the kosher establishment was founded as Lilit in 1993 by Keren Hendler-Kremerman, whose family donated the restaurant to ELEM in 2001.
In 2009, with the enterprise faltering economically, ELEM sold the business side of Lilit to a management group consisting of social entrepreneurs Assaf Blank, Nadav Berger and Chanoch Allan Barkat. The restaurant became the first of five projects supported by Barkat’s Dualis Israel Social Venture Fund.
"We made great changes," says Blank. "We renovated the restaurant totally to modernize it, and started marketing and managing the business properly. We also brought in Noam Deckers, one of Israel’s top chefs, and increased the number of teens we employ from seven to 15."
No hint it’s a training facility
The service and food have to be perfect, so there’s no hint that Lililyot is a training facility.
Dekkers and his sous chefs teach the teens how to prepare and plate a large variety of dishes from a Mediterranean-style menu of meats, fish and vegetables. There’s plenty of work to go around: The restaurant hosts affairs for up to 170 diners with indoor and outdoor seating areas and private rooms, and offers off-site catering as well.
In November 2009, the name was changed to the plural, "Liliyot," as the successful project expanded to include a boutique kosher pastry shop and café next door. In January 2011, the Liliyot Group opened a bistro in Ra’anana, bringing the total number of at-risk teens it employs to 25. "The goal is to get to 100 teenagers each year," says Shaul.
ELEM’s social workers choose the teens to be involved. Although exceptions are sometimes made, candidates must be between 16 and 19 years old with a permanent residence and no police record.
No exceptions are made, however, when it comes to the finished product at an eatery that Israeli restaurant critic Daniel Rogov once called "the very best kosher restaurant in the country."
"The service and food have to be perfect," says Shaul. "There should be no hint that this is a training facility. This is our highest value." The Liliyot Group now also includes partner Amir Lulian, one of Israel’s leading confectioners, who teaches ELEM clients in the adjacent bake shop/café how to produce a variety of breads, cakes, tarts, quiches and pastries.
Balancing social activity and profitability
"Our business plan is to take managers and have them become our partners as an incentive to be an active part of the business," Blank explains. The trainees receive pay and benefits like every other worker, and even though costs are high for a project like this, Blank says it’s turning a profit. "This is how we think businesses should be. To make a big change in society, you have to do something basic like teaching and educating to give these youth a chance in life, combined with a good business plan. It’s a bad lesson for the kids to be part of something that’s not successful."
"The main challenge of any social business is maintaining a balance between profitability and social activity," adds Barkat. "The Dualis vision is to invest in social businesses that would like to achieve profitability that’s 50 percent of that of businesses without a social cause. If a regular restaurant makes 10-15 percent profit, we see ourselves doing five to seven percent and the rest gets invested in the youth. When you have a month where the business is losing money and you know that if you make cuts in the social program you’d save money, it’s a challenging decision."
The model does seem to work. Dr. Aharon York of Bar-Ilan University tracked former participants in a study completed in March 2008 and found significant improvement in their circumstances as a result of their restaurant training. About half of them are working in restaurants and hotels. Many have gone on to serve in the Israel Defense Forces – a normative post-high school step that they likely would not have achieved otherwise.
"We continuously measure our performance," says Barkat. "We had Dr. York revisit graduates and assess their situation to see differences after we took over. There is no significant material change in the results achieved by graduates, but there are more participants and they’re getting more hours of work and therapy. We are one of the few restaurants around the world that has a fulltime social worker on premises."
The Liliyot Group also provides management services for Ringelblum Café in Beersheba, a Dualis project that is one of several food-service sites where ELEM places clients. "We see Ringelblum as our younger brother. We are each investing in social venture capital along with ELEM," he concludes.