Meet Cafe Xoho’s Xoli & Zoe
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, cafe owners, food stylists, workshop providers, and photographers. Welcome Xoho, Tel Aviv.
Eat.Drink.TelAviv’s Meet.Talk.TelAviv would like you to welcome Xoli Ormut-Durban, entrepreneur and owner of Cafe Xoho. Born in Hong Kong to Canadian parents, and raised in Australia, Xoli made her way to Israel six years ago at the age of twenty-two. Coming from a place with a rich coffee shop culture, Xoli was at odds when she arrived in Israel. She states matter-of-factly “I came here with the intention of staying, but hated all the coffee shops and the general culture.” (She assures me it is much better now.) With that drive to create a great coffee shop culture like she had in Australia she decided to open her own place. But with everything in Israel, these things took a bit of time. She wanted to find someone that shared that same desire and vision.
Through a friend of a friend, Xoli was introduced to Zoe Komarin, thinking they had a lot in common, starting with the similarly sounding names. Xoli meet Zoe. Zoe meet Xoli.
“We basically had the same name, and the same vision,” Xoli says happily.
Zoe is originally from New Jersey, but spent most of her time growing up in Brooklyn, New York. “I grew up in Jersey, but tell people New York because it sounds cooler,” she quips half laughing. Zoe came on Taglit-Birthright Israel five years ago with absolutely no intention of staying, but as some stories go she met a handsome man at an ice cream shop and stuck around to see where that romance would go. Eventually their relationship would get serious, and she married her ice cream patron prince in 2012. But it was a chance meeting at a party that helped her solidify her stay in Israel.
Xoli and Zoe, despite their sharing an end-of-the-alphabet name had a lot in common: a love for food, and a passion to create a place with creative and healthy options, with an eclectic yet sensible down-to-earth vibe.
Xoli explains their likely partnership. “She knew food, I knew baking and coffee, and that was it, we have been together ever since.”
It’s no secret I have been a fan of the little cafe since discovering it once I arrived to Tel Aviv, thanks for an Australian friend of mine who just had to take me there. Sadly, in my quest to dine at more and more restaurants for EatDrinkTelAviv, my visits to Xoho waned. But thankfully I wasn’t a complete stranger to Xoli. It was by chance I happened to spot her chatting with someone while standing outside the old Gordon Cafe (at Ben Yehuda and Gordon). As I walked by I thought to myself “that would be amazing, if Xoho expands there.” So I turned back and flat out asked Xoli if she had plans to expand to the newly available space.
Xoli did indeed have plans, and while it would take some time, she was excited by the prospect of growing her business. It was an inevitability. Xoho was and is constantly busy, and Xoli once told me the cafe only has ten bagels to sell for their Bagel Breakfasts because of capacity issues. Zoe would share with me the same frustration. Both did not want to have to worry about running out of bagels.
It would be hard to believe that the two are not actually related. Both Zoe and Xoli laugh and roll their eyes at the same things, and practically finish each other sentences. But I guess that’s natural when you spend almost five years together developing and nurturing the business, experiencing the ups and downs of Israeli chutzpah and bureaucracy. I found both her and Xoli surprisingly candid and open about their experiences. During the interview I had to let them take the lead, the two were so in sync with each other it was hard to disrupt their flow.
It’s easy to see that the two of them love the people that come to Xoho. The place is busy, and the energy is contagious, they are so happy to be there. As the interview progresses the place seems to get a bit louder. Zoe offers to continue outside but we, like those around us, are all so comfortable at Xoho.
Sitting with Xoli and Zoe we talked about what it was like to offer something unique and special in the crowded cafe scene in Tel Aviv, and especially about the upcoming challenges for their new cafe home at 17 Gordon Street at the corner of Ben Yehuda and Gordon.
I may not know what Xoho means, I never did ask, but I do know what Xoho is: a beautiful, down-to-earth, artsy, comfortable, vegetarian cafe-bakery that is as welcoming as your own neighbourhood spot back home.
Prof. NomNom: Xoli, Zoe. Xoho. This might get confusing. Let’s start by telling us a little about yourselves.
Xoli: Grew up in Hong Kong and China and made aliyah 6 years ago. I’m 28, don’t tell anyone.
Prof. NomNom: I’m really not good at keeping secrets, but I’ll try.
Zoe: I grew up in Jersey but tell people New York because it sounds cooler. I have been living in Israel for about five years. And I’m 30 years old.
Prof. NomNom: Um… okay well you have put me in quite the spot. I won’t tell anyone your age and I will be sure to let the world know you are from New York! Let’s just hope the Israeli Census people don’t show up. Let’s start of with how long Xoho has been around?
Xoli: Four and a half years.
Prof. NomNom: So you’ve survived the “3 year bump” of survival. So what were some of the challenges you’ve experienced over the last four years?
Xoli: (laughs) Challenges? The Israeli attitude to everything! (laughs) I really don’t know where to start.
Prof. NomNom: Do you think it is the Israeli bureaucracy? Or the chutzpah of the people you are working with?
X: I don’t think people here understand the concept of being on time. Being fair. Like things we take for granted from the societies we came from.
Prof. NomNom: Are you talking about employees or someone else?
Zoe: Actually, we have been pretty lucky, we have a really great staff, a GREAT staff — both Israeli and other nationalities.
X: We mean with suppliers that take you for granted and don’t look after you. Even if you have been with each other for four and a half years.
Z: There is a lot of, we say sort of laziness. We really feel like we bust our butts so to speak, and sometimes we are in a dynamic with people we were working with, not our staff, but the other elements that we are in tune with, and they don’t have the same drive and desire to be better. That’s the general tone of the coffee shop culture here. It is starting to change, but [initially] not having the drive to be different, or better, or special, or unique, or care.
X: People here want to make fast money, they don’t care about the future. It’s very short term thinking, and it starts in the army.
Prof. NomNom: Really?
X: For sure! They don’t see the future. Honestly, things are getting better here, because I know Zoe’s frustrations were that she couldn’t get a lot of the products she wanted.
Prof. NomNom: What were some of the different products you were trying to get?
X: We are ordering edible flowers, bok choy, and different coloured zucchini, and things that didn’t exist a few years ago. So now it’s getting better being here in Israel and being at the forefront of the Vegan/Vegetarian movement that is happening here. We have been making Vegan stuff since we opened. And people [other cafes] have only started recently.
Prof. NomNom: I hear that is a very big trend going on.
Z: Huge trend, like wildfire.
X: Huge, huge trend.
Prof. NomNom: So how do you think it will affect your business?
Z: I think it will help our position, because people have been coming to us for years and they know they can try something amazing. Even if they weren’t vegan before, they know we are going to give them amazing food and amazing quality. We work on trying to make the vegan options as delicious and delectable as the other options. More so than any other non-vegetarian place you might go to. Everything is paid attention to–
X: For example, Zoe came up with a veggie black bean burger today topped with mushroom bacon—
Z: That really tastes like bacon!
Prof. NomNom: Whoa!
X: Served with a vegan mayo sauce and sweet potato fries. That’s so crazy and so filling! When you eat it you think you are eating meat. People here don’t try to accommodate people. We are different, want you to have the best possible experience here, to give you more.
Prof. NomNom: So how does that translate to the products you offer or try to get for Cafe Xoho, Tel Aviv?
X: In terms of suppliers most people deliver really poor quality stuff, you need to pay more to get better quality stuff. We would rather our margins be smaller and be using a better product that using s#!t. I’m talking about vegetable suppliers.
Prof. NomNom: Any examples of really good vegetable suppliers? We want to avoid the crappy ones.
X: Carmela. They are the best. They are the most expensive, but they are the only one that brings any kind of quality around. We have tried to switch suppliers like five times but the quality is so bad we just can’t.
Prof. NomNom: What about all those special, different, unique ingredients you were mentioning?
Z: Luckily we have one supplier that offers all these unique ingredients. More importantly they work directly with a lot of farms and the Emek (valley) and actually pick your order directly that night.
X: Their prices are very good, and we’d work exclusively with them, except they don’t carry everything. For example bananas. They can’t bring us the normal things.
Prof. NomNom: So what were some of these special ingredients that you guys try to hunt down to expose people to?
Z: (laughing) Kale! But now it’s everywhere.
Prof. NomNom: Is it everywhere?
Z: Well our suppliers have it all the time now. That was a pretty big deal for me. I’m actually not a vegetarian in my lifestyle, but knowing that this is a vegetarian kitchen, from the very beginning I wanted kale. Coming from New York and the [vegetarian] scene going on back home, I was like “where is the kale?”
X: I remember a year ago, seeing kale for the first time at cafe Xoho at an affordable price, now everyone has it, every supplier can get it to you. In only a year!
Z: I mean like come on, it’s like any trend here. People recognize it as something good, people will buy. It just took a while.
Prof. NomNom: Is there anything else other than kale? I remember discussions online on where to find kale, but no one knew what it was called…
Z: Super Kruv. They call it Super Kruv!
X: Also Kruv-Al. They see it as a type of cabbage here, which I guess it is. We are also getting things like coloured carrots and round zucchinis.
Prof. NomNom: But at the Namal Tel Aviv Port Market you can get coloured carrots?
Z: Yes, you could get that for a while, but as a restaurant you couldn’t work with them directly. Israel has always had great produce here. They have a great growing season all year around, they are very lucky here. But in terms of offering variety, they have been limited for a long time.
Prof. NomNom: You both feel though that it’s slowly changing, like something new is trending here in Israel?
Z: It’s bringing back the idea of these other cities and their farmers markets and trying to pull the people working in the kitchens closer to the people growing the vegetables. It’s something I’ve been wanting that for a while. There are too many middle-men.
X: Same goes for the coffee. We switched over at the beginning of the year to a coffee called Mae. They have a place near Shuk HaCarmel and on Ibn Gvirol. It’s two Israeli guys who went to Costa Rica eight years ago, lived and worked on the farms. They learned from the ground up, from when you drink it, how you get the best beans for filter, espresso, for French Press, it doesn’t matter. They are so knowledgable. One even married a Costa Rican who is part of a family of growers. Now the came here and have this beautiful business. They go to Costa Rica all the time, and bring new coffee all the time. They roast coffee in house in a Tel Aviv cafe. And we are serving it here a week later. Our coffee is the freshest anywhere.
Z: They have their roasting shop [and cafe] at 2 Shefer Street near by.
X: That’s another major idea about Xoho, we are trying to connect with local people, and we want to tell people we are working with these people.
Prof. NomNom: One of the first things I recall about cafe Xoho was your pride in the coffee you served, what’s changed with Mae?
X: We were working with a nice brand before, but it wasn’t fresh. This coffee is fresh. You know the Italian coffee we were using, it’s dated and it’s from Italy. And it got roasted god-knows-when. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t good, it’s just not the same local roasted concept of freshness.
Z: I think it also affects the experience, knowing that this company [Mae] is a company around the corner with people that are supportive of us and we are supportive of them. It just changes the whole game.
Prof. NomNom: So let’s talk about the new space on Gordon Street–
X: We are excited because it’ll just give us more space and comfort. We can produce enough product like bagels.
Z: We have ten bagels here every day and they sell out almost immediately.
Prof. NomNom: Do you think Xoho will lose some of the magic, because some of the charm is in its intimacy?
X: It will grow. Xoho didn’t start like this. It started with no graffiti, and just red walls and no art anywhere! There was just us working here, now there are eight people working here. All this stuff grows organically. We already have five artists come into the [new] space and do work there. And it’s already awesome. We are going to pack people in like sardines like we do here, so it’ll be the same. But different is good, you know?
Prof. NomNom: No doubt. What do you think will change food wise?
Z: In the new space we will have a proper kitchen and a proper baking space. Our ability to make food on the fly and really be dynamic and more experimental, which will lead to a more experimental menu.
Prof. NomNom: I happen to like some of the things on your menu. What are some of the top dishes at Xoho?
Z: The Breakfast bagel with onion jam, cheese and tomato. It’s the closest you can get from an egg and cheese bagel back in New York. The Breakfast burrito is a big hit. It’s super light but still fills you up. And then there is our Beer Bread Breakfast. Those three are definitely the top favorites.
Prof. NomNom: Will there be any other specials or top secret dishes on the menu at the new Xoho?
Z: The main menu will be a bit smaller, and there will be more specials. There are people here that don’t look at the menu, they look at the specials board and order. Which is something we really appreciate. It took us a long time to get people to trust us. A long time! There was this period where we were like “don’t you want to try these amazing things that we are making for you?”
X: I think onion jam was a huge turning point. People just didn’t understand what it was.
Prof. NomNom: I know what you mean. Is it onions? Is it jam? Maybe onion marmalade makes more sense? Anyway–
Z: Now people trust us.
X: If we say it’s good, they’ll just have it.
Z: People don’t even order anything they just want us to dictate to them what to eat. [At the new Xoho] we will have these two specials boards on a track.
X: That’s what people will look at. Our base menu will be printed on recycled paper and update it as we need it, with the basics.
Z: The Xoho classics. The stuff people are addicted to.
Prof. NomNom: What else will people come to expect at the new Xoho?
X: Zoe is going to be making more bread – homemade focaccia, whole wheat and regular. We are going to have different kinds of bagels, different kinds of cream cheeses. We are going to have different options.
Prof. NomNom: Any gluten-free options?
Z: We are working on it. It might be a spelt option. It won’t be available all the time, but when we make it we will notify people. We will have to manage how much time it takes to make stuff in the new space.
X: We have never had this much space before, so we can’t predict how much staff we will need for example.
Prof. NomNom: Sounds exciting and nerve-wracking. What are you most nervous about with the new space?
Z: I think we are competent in a lot, I just think we are anticipating being busy. Our customer base is already super excited. The amount of foot traffic on Gordon compared to Mapu is mind-blowing. We are just anticipating being a lot busier, with a handful of new staff and finding our groove.
X: My biggest concern is being in charge of more staff. We have had people that have been here from six months to four years. We just had a couple of people that have been with us for two years come back to be part of the Xoho family. But we will have to go from a staff of eight to a staff of fifteen. That’s my biggest fear. We have a family here.
Z: We try to bring a good healthy attitude to what we do. And it’s something we look for.
X: We rarely take people that are trained in baking or as a chef, because we want people that are creative and flexible and willing to learn. Because we make it up, and we give them creative space. The girls make up some of these beautiful specials with the ingredients we give them.
Prof. NomNom: How do you decide what the specials are for that week?
Z: We order the stuff on Saturday and I send the order list to whoever is opening and we start the conversation that night about what to do with the stuff. We brainstorm. One chef leads a vegan lifestyle so one of her specials are vegan and she approaches it from that direction. There is a Xoho essence in all the food and you can feel each person, what they are into, what ingredients they like using, where they are most comfortable.
X: It’s about giving them a creative space. Even at the bar. My bartenders are always coming to me with thoughts and ideas and 99% of the time I’m like “why not!”
Z: They were the reason we changed to this local coffee. The came in and said “we don’t like the coffee. We don’t want to drink it.”
X: (smiling) And I’m open to it. Why not?!
Prof. NomNom: What are some of the interesting ingredients that you wouldn’t find at a coffee shop that you might find at the new Xoho?
Z: Daikon (Asian white radish), edible flowers.
X: Zebra tomatoes.
Z: I’m working with a lot of greens like radish greens, beet greens, carrot tops. Like usually all those greens that they chop off when you buy the stuff at the Shuk.
X: Different types of sprouts.
Z: Micro-basil. And beautiful field mushrooms, and oyster mushrooms.
Prof. NomNom: What restaurants do you like and would recommend to readers and visitors of Cafe Xoho?
X: Oasis is by far the top of my list.
Z: It’s the place we go where we are like “oh we have a little cash to spend, or we have something to celebrate like a birthday or whatever.”
X: Shaffa in Jaffa and Le Shuk in Kikar Dizengoff. They do really cool shuk style stuff.
Z: I love Hanoi. I love what they are doing there. I think they are the only place in Tel Aviv that offers Vietnamese or Malaysian style food that isn’t trying to be a fancy restaurant.
X: Port Said as well.
Z: Miznon, the one on King George. Eyal Shani is likely one of the only people hitting the nail on the head on how to do Israeli food and bring it to the masses, that is so special. I think he might be a little cukoo but he’s got it.
Prof. NomNom: Any last word regarding the new Xoho space and the future?
X: At the new space there will be an emphasis on communal tables. There will be at least two communal tables in the entire place. That’s really cool. I really want to push that. Zoe has that experience from Brooklyn and in Melbourne where I have most of my experience from, every coffee shop no matter how big it is would have one communal table where people will read the paper together, drink coffee together.
Z: So many of our customers have gotten to know each other from being here and you’d be surprised how many choose to sit together now.
X: [With the new Xoho] we just want to keep seeing people’s kids grow up, we are such a part of the people in the area. One customer gave Zoe his starter for bread, and we were so grateful.
Z: We want to keep growing our family. It’s really beautiful. It’s a rare experience where everyone that comes through the door says “this place reminds me of back home.” Whether they are from Israel or not. Which I think we will continue to feel like a home. Because we are there to greet you.