No Recipe for Riches

About a week ago an important deal was closed in the Israeli restaurant business: Chef Haim Cohen bought restaurateur Irit Shenkar's share of the Dixie and Philadelphia restaurants, as well as the private meat plant that supplies them with raw materials.

About a week ago an important deal was closed in the Israeli restaurant business: Chef Haim Cohen bought restaurateur Irit Shenkar's share of the Dixie and Philadelphia restaurants, as well as the private meat plant that supplies them with raw materials. The price of the transaction is estimated at more than $1 million, and it guarantees Cohen exclusive ownership.

But despite the huge sums involved in such transactions, many chefs admit that gourmet restaurants are not the fast track to getting rich: One careless step in any direction can result in serious losses. In addition to the inevitable complexity of managing a high-end restaurant, food products have seen a sharp price increase of late, complicating chefs' lives even further and threatening to reduce their numbers.

"A restaurant is a factory, and a chef must be both a plant manager and a businessman," says Rafi Cohen, the chef and owner of Tel Aviv's Raphael restaurant. Raphael opened seven years ago. After being in business for three years, Rafi Cohen became the sole owner of the restaurant, which employs some 140 people (including part-time jobs).

"I employ managers for every area: some are in charge of staff, others of bookkeeping, and still others are responsible for service and employee management," Cohen says. He compares a restaurant to a government, and expresses himself accordingly: "Today I am the sole owner of all the shares, and I will distribute them among the partners of my choice, from the industry. To me, that seems to be the best way. I don't want any old partner, someone who's not from the industry, sitting in my restaurant.

"To be a sole owner is not easy," Cohen adds. "I always have to deal with the conflict between the prices of raw materials and the prices I charge, for example. But I prefer doing so on my own, for my own restaurant, rather than having others do it. I think restaurant prices will have to increase soon. It's a predictable result, because the percentage of expenses taken up for purchasing raw materials is becoming increasingly significant."

In any case, according to Rafi Cohen it's impossible to get rich from being a restaurant chef. "Anyone who wants to get rich can do so in a start-up or in the real estate business. Those who choose to work as chefs do so because they simply love it so much. It's creative work, and has some unavoidable administrative aspects. It also means working during all hours of the day, meaning that anyone who isn't really into it won't last anyhow. You make a good living, but if you consider all the pressures and the work hours, there are certainly more lucrative professions out there."

Interest, not money

One chef who confesses to loving the business-side of running a restaurant is Meir Adoni, whose restaurant enjoyed a burst of popularity thanks to his appearance on "Krav Sakinim" (Knife Fight), a competitive-cooking television series that actually tested creativity.

Since the Tel Aviv incarnation of his Catit restaurant first opened its doors, Adoni has served as the chef who manages the kitchen, is in charge of both food and staff, and is also urging his partners in Catit to develop new business initiatives in the restaurant field. Among the partners are Kobi Even Ezra, the owner of Magal Security Systems; Yiftah Wiesel, one of the owners of the Fox fashion chain; and marketer Yoel Admi.

"We receive lots of proposals; some are very serious while others disintegrate once they are broken down into plans," Adoni says. "But I'm the one who arouses their enthusiasm for new plans. Because I think you have to play all your cards, to continue, to progress."

When Catit opened in Tel Aviv, the partners calculated that they would have to invest in the place for several years until they would reap any returns. But according to Adoni, both he and the other partners are surprised by the enthusiastic response the restaurant has received and by the rate of return on investment.

"And still," he says, "about once a week they have to restrain me when it comes to the costs of the ingredients, because I easily lose control. Right now the prices of merchandise change on a daily basis, so you have to keep up with the situation. I'm fine with them setting limits. But of course I'm aware of what I'm allowed to do and what I'm not. I simply have to restrain myself, and our profession doesn't always allow for restraint. It's a contradiction in terms."

Chef Adoni now shares in the profit percentages, and also receives a monthly salary, which he says is "respectable, but will not turn me into a rich man, of course. I'm interested in progressing in the restaurant business because it is what interests me, because of the experiences, and because of ego, too.

"I think ego is more integral to our profession than driving a luxury car - which doesn't mean anything to me. I drive a van exactly like my suppliers, and I'm satisfied. When I say that I want to conquer the world I'm talking about doing interesting things, and not about the financial situation. Even if I initiate something abroad, it's not necessarily for big money, but because it interests me and allows me to fulfill my dreams."

'A sane life'

Chef Yaron Shalev of Toto really managed to fulfill his dreams: He was brought in as a partner at an existing Tel Aviv restaurant and instituted far-reaching changes. Aside from the restaurant's name, everything was changed when Shalev arrived two years ago. "I took everything on myself," says Shalev. "We changed the menu, the service; we broke walls in order to enlarge the kitchen, and a few months later the interior design was changed, too. I wanted to take hold of the restaurant totally, because I don't know how to go about it in any other way.

"When I took on the job, I received a certain percentage of the profits. Now I'm a full partner. I employ two buyers, who look at charts showing numbers and prices and report to me how much a piece of lokus (grouper) or a fillet of denise (sea bream) costs, and of course fruit, whose prices change every day and can become quite expensive. This report is done on a daily basis, so I'll know how to price the dishes. In my opinion, there's no other way," Shalev said.

"There are certain common mistakes that must be avoided: serving specials that are too expensive, or pricing appetizers too low. It's a profession in itself, but it's also part of the chef's job. A large turnover in the restaurant doesn't say anything about the profits at the end of the month, and the profits at the end of the month are also my salary and that of my partners," Shalev added.

Eran Shroitman, the chef at Orca, is the opposite of Adoni and Shalev. He is also an equal partner in the restaurant, but he is not involved in the finances. "The business aspect doesn't interest me at all," says Shroitman, a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, and of Cordon Bleu in Paris, where he also taught. "Had I wanted to be a businessman, I wouldn't have entered the food industry. I deal with soul and I am passionate about the profession and the subject.

"I'm disgusted with matters motivated by money, ranging from the food industry to television. I'm quite alone in that, but I don't have a problem with it. I make a good living, and it's more important to me to love my work and live a real life. I'll drive a less luxurious car and I won't have hundreds of thousands of shekels in the bank, but I'll do something I like and thus have a saner life. I could double my earnings, but I refuse the proposals. I'm satisfied. I could do a lot of tricks at Orca so the profits would increase, but I don't. I prefer to be faithful to my values, that's what's important to me."