A unique Tel Aviv eatery offers diners fine cuisine while at the same time providing at-risk youths with culinary vocational training.
Gourmet restaurant Lilit is filled with surprises – not all of them culinary. Located in Asia House, a luxury office building adjacent to Tel Aviv’s art museum and opera house, Lilit’s high-class clientele may not be aware of it, but they are participating in one of the city’s most successful social welfare projects and now, hopefully — with the help of a few dedicated businesspeople — one of its most successful social entrepreneurships.
“Lilit is a business with a heart,” says venture-capitalist-turned-social-entrepreneur Allan (Hanoch) Barkat, who explains that the restaurant offers fine kosher cuisine while at the same time providing at-risk youths with the opportunity to acquire vocational training in the culinary world.
The restaurant kitchen team includes 15 young people who are finding their way into society through job training, guidance counseling and 6-18 months of steady employment.
Lilit was founded in 1993 by Keren Hendler-Kremerman whose family donated the restaurant to non-profit organization ELEM – Youth in Distress in Israel in 2001.
After seven years and 70 graduates to its credit, ELEM made the strategic decision to hand the business side of Lilit over to professionals. “And this is a very good model,” says Efrat Shafrut, head of resource development at ELEM.
ELEM found social entrepreneur Assaf Blank, now CEO of Lilit, who brought Barkat and Nadav Berger on board – the two knew one another from the Kellogg-Recanati International Executive MBA Program at Tel Aviv University.
In January of this year, the partners officially took over the business and began raising its profile, starting with an upgrade of the already elegant space.
Founding father of VC industry turns to social welfare
Toronto-born Barkat came to the project after an illustrious career as one of the Israeli venture capital industry’s founding fathers. He joined Apax Partners in 1995 and headed the office in Israel, specializing in investments in telecom equipment and semiconductors.
Starting with the Apax Leumi fund and follow-on fund Apax Israel II, he led investments in the Nasdaq traded companies, FundTech, Commtouch, and Ceragon Networks, as well as Ezchip, GWS Photonics, Foxcom Wireless and others, and chaired the NESS loan fund for small businesses in the Negev, a New Jersey-Israel initiative.
Barkat’s achievements led Israel’s financial daily, Globes, to state in a 2001 industry review, “If it weren’t for [Barkat], investments of foreign funds in Israel would be smaller than they are by dozens of percentage points.”
Since leaving Apax Partners three years ago, Barkat has been combining his business experience with social entrepreneurship through a new social venture fund, Dualis.
“I have come to the belief that there is an opportunity to encourage social entrepreneurs to build social businesses on a for-profit basis,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “To this end I have decided to invest and back several ventures of this nature, starting with Lilit.
“With the change of ownership, our challenge is to introduce business practices, sustainability, strengthening and broadening the customer base,” he explains. “This will enable us to prove the business model, profitability and expand to new locations across the country; enabling more teenagers to benefit from the special opportunity this program provides them and society.
ELEM will continue to partner with Lilit, and has joined the board of directors. The project also has the strong support of ELEM America.
The partners are now seeking social entrepreneurs with experience in restaurant management and restaurants interested in taking on social programs.
Providing youth with the tools for life
“We’ve got different ideas and there are a couple of constraints: first, you need entrepreneurs at each location. ELEM is obviously supportive but this is a business that has a large number of youths in a program, so it requires a significant investment,” says Barkat. “And of course, you have to get the right location, the right team. Our vision is that in five years we’ll have several locations and 100 young people going through the program every year.”
There are a few other projects similar to Lilit – the most famous is perhaps Fifteen in the UK, spearheaded by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver – but, Shafrut points out, ELEM has a range of other programs designed to rehabilitate at-risk youths through employment, including placements at the Spaghettim restaurant chain, a quiche bakery in Rehovot, and organic farming at the Volcani Institute, in addition to ELEM drop-in centers around the country.
“ELEM is very entrepreneurial in its approach towards rehabilitation through employment,” she tells ISRAEL21c. “Because we see that the formula is not just social work, but rather, to integrate a social worker with a framework of education and employment, plus the fact that the youth learns a profession and earns money. They come out with tools for life.”
The effort is paying off. Academic research that examined the Lilit project over a five-year period found an astounding rate of success. In comparing their lives before and after the project, over 75 percent of the young participants reported a positive change.
“The individual care and sensitivity of the professional staff enabled them to rehabilitate their lives and become productive citizens. Many Lilit graduates work in hotels and restaurants, and some even have joined the army,” says Shafrut, stressing an important point about Israeli society, where national service is a key stepping stone to integration and getting ahead,
It has also paid off commercially as well. Israel’s top restaurant critic Daniel Rogov recently called Lilit “the very best kosher restaurant in the country… certainly of interest to sophisticated diners even when kashrut is not important.”
At Asia House, Lilit runs a 60-seat restaurant, a 60 person private dining room suitable for events such as board dinners, investor presentations, corporate lunch seminars as well as bar mitzvahs, wedding meals – complete with DJ and dancing — and other parties.
The entire 120-seat space can also be rented out, and Lilit offers kosher personal catering services for the office or home. “There aren’t a lot of places like this in Tel Aviv or even Jerusalem,” notes Barkat. “For visitors to Israel, It’s a nice alternative to dinner at the hotel.”
Restaurant patrons will benefit from a fine meal in the short term and much, much more in the long run, Barkat adds. “We believe that only by providing people with practical tools for supporting themselves with dignity will it be possible to truly alter the state of Israeli society.”