Meet Social Food’s Asaf Ben Ezra
At Eat.Drink.TelAviv we are excited when we have a chance to share with you some interesting personalities in the food industry here in Tel Aviv be them chefs, tour guides, restaurant and cafe owners, food stylists, photographers, and food importers.
Eat.Drink.TelAviv’s Meet.Talk.TelAviv would like you to welcome Asaf Ben Ezra, owner and creator of the new cafe concept Chevruta: Social Food at 125 Dizengoff. Growing up just outside of Afula in the Emek Medical Center where his mother worked, Asaf never had ideations about entering the food industry, but rather sports. He played basketball for a few years on local Israeli teams and ended his career with the HaPoel Eilat club. He moved to Tel Aviv three and a half years ago looking for his next venture. Inspired by the Tel Aviv Social protests in 2011 and 2012, Asaf envisioned Chevruta: Social Food, which he believes is bringing about a social revolution to the coffee house.
Revolutions are born everyday. Countries are torn apart, and formed back again. Sometimes the people leading the charge live in infamy, or immortalized and revered like Che Guevara – whose legacy lives-on with t-shirt wearing college students everywhere. (No disrespect to Che but this t-shirt thing has got to stop.) Many revolutions bring about major positive change. Other revolutions just fall flat and ruin all the good work done before, like the Matrix Revolutions (which to say was the worst of the three Matrix movies.) More recently the Occupy Wall Street Revolution attempted to attack the 1% and help bring to light the struggles of the other 99%. What does this have to do with Asaf Ben Ezra’s Social Food movement? I’m not sure, I really just wanted to write my serious disdain for the Che t-shirts.
The social protests of Tel Aviv in 2011 started with the rising price of cottage cheese in the country. It hit upon other ludicrous price gouging items like diapers, and the skyrocketing housing costs in Tel Aviv. Cost of Living for regular Tel Avivians was out of control. The protests changed very little in the way of rent, but they did manage to effect some change (even for a little bit) with the food. It was during this time Asaf thought to bring something new to the coffee-shop culture of Tel Aviv.
Asaf’s vision of Chevruta: Social Food is to bring high quality food and coffee at a fair market price with the amount of profit literally in the hands of the customer. It’s a risky proposition. Some customers pretend not to understand what he is doing, as he and his employees explain the cost structure and pricing strategy. I had the opposite trouble, I struggled with not giving profit, as if it seemed socially unacceptable to get the food without offering something more. Like leaving a restaurant without a tip.
Part of me felt like a subject in a huge psycho-social science experiment. During one visit I purposely left no profit, only to see how they felt about it (my 4NIS Americano), only to realize I felt like I was taking advantage of the system.
It seems Social Food will survive on the goodness and understanding of people doing what is right in the long run. The concept is fairly simple. Social Food offers food at cost plus 2NIS to cover overhead, and the rest is up to you. I had walked passed the coffee shop a few times before deciding to finally see what it was all about. I figured it was just another run-of-the-mill coffee shop opening its doors in Tel Aviv, but I was really surprised.
Tzvi, Social Food’s first cafe employee, explains “The concept is bringing the food and drink at cost plus two shekels to cover our salary, the cups, the rent, the electricity. Then based on the final amount, we suggest a range of profit you can add, or give whatever amount you choose.” Excuse me? An Americano for 4NIS? A piece of chocolate cake for 14.5NIS? Orange juice for 4.5NIS? Doesn’t Cofix sell everything for 5NIS Anyway?
“You have to speak to the owner Asaf, the one that came up with the idea. He is really passionate about it, and really believes this will work with the people.”
I leave my number with Tzvi and Asaf calls me the next day. He is a busy guy, having just opened up the coffee-shop just 2 weeks before (Early April, 2014) but he is so excited to get the word out, he jumps at the chance to share his story. As he manages between accepting inventory, sharing the concept with incoming customers, prepping sandwiches and making coffees, he sits down with me to share his passion in starting this food revolution.
Prof. NomNom: Hi Asaf! Tell us about the concept of Chevruta: Social Food?
Asaf Ben Ezra: We marked all our products at cost. All our products are fine products. We did our best in the last year to bring here premium products; from the coffee, to the sandwiches, the quiches, to the lasagna. It’s the best in the market. In all the coffee shops they sell it at 200-300% from us, because we sell it on cost, we suggest it at cost. You the customers decide how much we are going to earn. Instead of targeting 200-300 customers and make 300% on them, we decided to have a lot of customers at a small price. It’s more social, it’s more fair. Basically this is our concept.
Prof. NomNom: What do you think one of the biggest challenges is when you open up a place and remove the profit margin?
Asaf: Well I think the greatest challenge is to bring the people. As soon as people know about us, there is not chance they won’t come in, try us and see how good we are. Our product is so fine. I guarantee that they will come back. We are (only) open for two weeks, and we already have regular customers that come three times a day – morning, noon, and evening. Some of them come even come in the night. I think it’s great that we have here a place that prices the merchandise at a reasonable price and after the customer adds the profit.
Prof. NomNom: Do you think one of the hardest parts is educating the people over and over again?
Asaf: It’s hard, but I like it. I feel I am doing the real revolution, the real socialism. It’s not hard. We repeat ourselves, but when you believe in something and you have faith, nothing is hard. You’re doing it with passion so really it’s not hard.
Prof. NomNom: What do you see in the future and hope for with Social Food?
Asaf: I hope to see Chevruta: Social Food all over Israel. We hope to develop ourselves overseas. I hope the people will like us. The people will appreciate us. If they will understand that we come with absolute truth, they understand that we are the best thing that happened to them in the last 30 years. Just like there is the cellular revolution (with Golan Telecom), and with [grocery] markets like Rami Levi.
Prof. NomNom: Aside from the pricing model – what’s different than an Aroma, or Roladin or a smaller coffee shop?
Asaf: Aroma charges about 100-300% profit. We target with zero percent profit. So it’s a huge difference. The products are the same as Roladin or Arcaffe, as Café Hillel or Greg Café. I think, to my opinion, and customers who have tasted our products before we went out to market, is that we are better than Aroma. We are better than these medium coffee shops.
Prof. NomNom: So you are banking on higher quality products and…?
Asaf: Our value for money is huge. So we let our customers choose the range, that they can mark their price on this scale.
Prof. NomNom: Do you feel like you have to have a thick skin when people come in and do not give you a service amount?
Asaf: No, I’m doing it gently.
Prof. NomNom: I’ve noticed!
Asaf: You can see the people that don’t believe, or they have no money. It’s different. The people that don’t believe, if someone doesn’t believe you, you don’t want him. As simple as that. You don’t want someone that doesn’t believe in you to buy from you. But if it is somebody that has the money, or has difficulty in paying the price and I can help him, this is what I’m here for. To help those in need. And get more money from the strong and let it balance out at 30-40%.
Prof. NomNom: That’s your target?
Asaf: I think I’m here, for the last week and a half around 30-40%. It’s just that not a lot of people know about us.
Prof. NomNom: Where did you come up with the crazy idea? Were you in India, maybe at a moon party?
Asaf: (laughs) No, it was 2am in the morning. In bed.
Prof. NomNom: Were you influenced by anything out in the world?
Asaf: No, no. Nothing, It just popped out into my brain. Basically, all the protests that everyone did here (in Tel Aviv), and all the changes that came afterwards, made me think of it.
Prof. NomNom: So you’ve invested your own money into this, do you have experience in the restaurant/food industry?
Asaf: No. I have no experience, just big cojones.
Prof. NomNom: (chuckles) Indeed. Just please don’t put that on a t-shirt.
Chevruta: Social Food indeed has some very high quality food offerings. The chocolate square cake and the halva bar are incredibly rich and exquisite. The sandwich as well are made with very tasty bread, and incredibly the hummus is surprisingly top quality (Not surprisingly to Asaf who assured it was so good, he had to have it at his coffee-shop). The Americano was a fine brew, and we are told is a top-quality bean that remains anonymous to protect its brand equity (part of the deal when you are selling cups of coffee at cost+.) Sitting in the shop I witnessed varying degrees of “being social” at Chevruta. Profit margins varied from 0% to 120% on a variety of food and drink. People seem to be catching on, enjoying the food and joining the revolution.
Are You In A Social Mood?