The Beekeeper, the Baker and the Olive Oil Maker

A growing number of independent food producers is making boutique products. And they don't feel threatened by, or tempted to sell to, the big companies.

Michal Palti
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Michal Palti

Thousands of thin iron needles move slowly up and down in the olive mill at Moshav Bnei Dror. The needles penetrate the olive oil residue in a large receptacle containing water, olive paste and pits. (There is a lot of oil in the pits.) The oil sticks to the needles and is dripped gently into another container. Who would have thought olive oil could be produced this way, in a process reminiscent of Israeli sewing factories in the good old days before globalization?

The method is called Sinolea and it was invented in Italy by a family firm, Rapanelli. Moshav Bnei Dror's olive milling facility is Rapanelli's exclusive representative in Israel. As a boutique olive mill, which produces about 50 tons of olive oil per year and another 200 tons on order from other growers, Bnei Dror sought to produce olive oil in a more gentle way, "which does not exert excessive pressure on the oil," according to David Ben Ze'ev, who started the olive oil facility at the moshav two years ago. "The competition is less difficult in boutique products," Ben Ze'ev says. "We do not play on the field with the big guys and our sales volume is lower, but we hope to turn a nice profit."

The olive mill at Moshav Bnei Dror is one example of a manufacturing facility for boutique products from among a growing group of independent food producers: sophisticated farmers who visit exhibitions and emphasize design and healthy raw materials, bakers who insist on kneading their dough by hand and chocolatiers. The limited Israeli market does not deter the boutique producers. They suffice with selling to a clientele of hundreds of regular customers.

Are they worried about their small business being consumed by one of the large corporations that control the market? It depends who you ask. At Bnei Dror, they have good relations with the large companies.

It is now afternoon, and Ahikam and David Ben Ze'ev, father and son, are sitting at a table with Irit Bachar, the facility's technologist who is certified to taste olive oil by the International Olive Oil Council.

The olive oil facility at Bnei Dror was built near an older facility that used the traditional millstone method. "It was very romantic," says Ahikam, "but the quality of the oil was not good enough in our opinion." The moshav was looking for a good way to utilize the moshav's many olive trees and they wanted "to produce the best olive oil in the country." So they imported the Sinolea machine from Italy, which tenderly extracts the oil from the mixture and drips it slowly into a container. "The result is an especially low level of acidity, less than one 10th of the Israeli standard. The level of acidity is an indication of the quality of the oil. It will remain fresh for a long time and will not spoil," Bachar explains.

The olive pickers from Bnei Dror place a row of small colored glasses on the table for Bachar to use in explaining the qualities of the oil: The Syrian olive is more bitter and produces oil with a different taste; the Manzanillo olive yields a delicate and more "rounded" oil; green olives produce oil with a "green and herbal" taste and oil from ripe olives has the aroma of ripeness. Unlike in wine tasting, the oil is eventually swallowed and Bachar has become accustomed to swallowing a handsome quantity of oil. "I'm still can't do it," says David Ben Ze'ev, "despite the fact that I use olive oil in every home dish."

Bnei Dror olive oil is also in demand from the large companies. "But we are farmers," Ahikam says. "This is our moshav's industry." Meanwhile, they cooperate with the Carmel Mizrahi company, which will represent them at an exhibition of high-quality Israeli food products in New York. "If we get an offer from a high-tech company, with high-tech figures, perhaps we'll consider it," he laughs. "But we won't get such an offer, and we do not aspire to this."

Money from honey

Netta Lin has also received offers to acquire the family business. Lin manages the Lin Bee Farm at Kfar Bilu with her brother Yuval Lin, producing honey and health products. There are 12 workers at the farm, which has some 1,000 hives producing about 200 tons of honey each year. Netta and Yuval have worked the farm since the 1980s and have jointly managed it since the mid-1990s. Besides producing honey, the farm also offers a wide variety of health spreads, including halva, tehina and dates in honey.

Lin is not a typical girl from a farming moshav. She is an architect and Bezalel graduate who continues to plan projects. Her sister is the artist Hilla Lulu-Lin. "Hilla and I had a design studio together in Jaffa," says Lin. "Hilla traveled to the United States and I needed to make a living. Yuval was already in the business and I joined him, replacing my father. Gradually, I learned the job."

In addition to her work as an architect-honey producer, Lin also found time to bear five children and develop a new line of products with her brother. She says she is always thinking, "What else can we do with honey?" Lin likes working in the honey business and the freedom the family business provides. "I like the family atmosphere, that decisions are easier because there are only a few decision makers, and sometimes we hold meetings via telephone. This is really comfortable. We provide a respectable livelihood for 12 families - is there a better feeling than that?"

According to Lin, there are occasional offers to acquire the business. "We are not tempted to sell. The work is fun and we enjoy the independence. We are in constant contact with the large companies - Yad Mordechai, for example. They are competitors, but beekeepers are a nation and we have really good relations, not like the typical competitors in any other field. All in all, this is an enjoyable enterprise."

Chocolate boom

Michael (Mishi) Balog is a chocolatier from Kiryat Tivon, and his business has flourished of late. The profession of chocolate maker has become at least as popular in Israel as alternative medicine, a boom that Balog regards with some astonishment. Balog, 56, developed a specialty in making pralines back in 1971, "when the peak of chocolate in Israel was a bar of Suchard that someone brought from abroad." As a child, he dreamed of becoming a baker and chocolate maker, and when he was released from the army in 1969, he traveled to Zurich to learn the trade at the Honold confectionery.

"I returned to Israel in the 1970s and became a confectioner. In 1979, I opened a confectionery in Kiryat Tivon. Since I learned to make pralines, I always produced some chocolate for friends and special occasions." Balog could have continued making pralines in this way forever, but in the early 1990s, he heard about the Max Brenner chocolate factory and he made a decision. "I realized that I am, in fact, an expert," he says. Thus, nearly two decades after learning and making chocolates for his friends, he began producing pralines to sell at his confectionery in Kiryat Tivon.

He now sells 42 types of pralines, storing several kilograms of each in his store. He can also prepare larger amounts to order. "I make chocolate without any antioxidants and my chocolate has a shelf life of only two weeks. I don't make a huge amount, because then I need to throw it away." Regular customers from northern Israel come to Kiryat Tivon, and he also sells pralines to specialty stores in Zichron Ya'akov and Rosh Pina. He acts as a consultant to companies and teaches at a cooking school. And most of all, he looks around and criticizes the flood of chocolatiers in Israel.

"People travel abroad for a one-week course and return as expert chocolatiers; there is no culture of in-depth study here," he complains. "Thus, customers pay a high price for mediocre chocolate. There is currently a lot of excitement about this, but only the good ones, who keep at it and are ready to work hard, will survive." Balog loves his work, but does not see any contradiction between this and his readiness to entertain a suitable acquisition offer. "If they make me an offer like Max Brenner? Perhaps that would interest me, who knows."

Fabulous baker boy

Uri Scheft, the owner and chief baker at Lehamim on Hahashmonaim Street in Tel Aviv, tries to stay clear of any type of thrills; he believes in hard work, with good materials, without fancy design and without marketing. When he opened the Lehamim bakery and store two years ago, he sought "to open a street bakery like you see in Europe in every neighborhood."

The customers followed the aroma to the store. About 150 different types of baked goods are prepared daily, from croissants to cakes to breads of every variety. The bakery and store are open continually from 6 A.M. on Sunday through 5 P.M. on Friday. "I didn't call it a boulangerie or a patisserie," he notes. "It's a bakery that combines a high-quality and refined European style with an Israeli twist - bourekas, for example, or a salty croissant with cheese."

Scheft studied baking in Denmark after completing a BA in biology and realizing he would not work in this field. "I always liked to cook and I was looking for a new direction," he says. "I'm a Danish citizen, so I traveled to study there at a government school that is not especially renowned, mostly because I wanted to learn and experiment." As part of his studies, he also trained in Switzerland and France. After returning to Israel, he studied for three years at Ran Shmueli's catering business school, and then established a company for baking and selling bread at stands. His partners in this business were the owners of Arcaffe and Patis Art.

"Only then did I dare open a place by myself, a simple place with good service, where the customers would come on a daily basis," he says. At the bakery on the busy and sooty Tel Aviv street, he makes sure to chat with a lot of his steady customers, and only the dripping from the air conditioner onto the sidewalk and some of the street signs can disturb the sweet illusion of the European neighborhood bakery.

Scheft has written down all of his recipes on index cards and has trained a team of bakers. He says he still comes often himself to bake "because I love it." He has no dreams of expansion, of starting a nationwide chain and making his mark on the local food market. "I'm interested in working well and continuing to provide customers with exactly what they want. Therefore, I won't open more branches. There are 30 employees at Lehamim, and sometimes I get nervous that this may be too much, and feel I should cut back and stop going crazy with more and more products. If I bake and commit to a large quantity, the freshness will definitely suffer. We now bake bread twice a day here, in the morning and evening, and I'm not prepared to go beyond this.

"I receive overtures from large companies, chains and cafes on a daily basis," Scheft says. "In the beginning, I would agree to meet with them. Today, I know what I want and this won't work. I have a 12-year-old son who comes to work with me during vacations. From my point of view, I am starting a business for a hundred years, at least."