Ben Yehuda 16, Jerusalem

Have You Seen the Muffin Man? JPost


The Muffin Boutique is very excited about the full page review featured in the JPost on August 15, 2014.

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Have you seen the muffin man?

While Jerusalem may be chockablock with a tremendous range of food items, from dim sum and doughnuts to curry and croissants, a new taste treat emerging on the local culinary scene is the muffin.  Newly opened on the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, Muffin Boutique offers a tantalizing array of muffins, spanning a spectrum that includes peanut butter-chocolate, blueberry streusel, pumpkin-cream cheese, halva, lemon-poppy and morning glory. There are vegan and low-calorie options, as well as a wide selection of mini-muffins.

The brainchild of Canadian-born couple Shmarya and Lainie Richler, the café and take-out shop at 16 Ben-Yehuda is chic and unique. In addition to the muffins made on the premises, they also produce Montreal-style bagels which, as any Montrealer will contend, are the best bagels in the world.

New to the kitchen but not to the business realm, Shmarya comes from a hi-tech background. Dissatisfied with that milieu, with start-ups starting up and fizzling out, the 53-year-old computer programmer decided to follow his and Lainie’s dream of running a muffin and bagel shop.

Lainie, who has a degree in child studies and teaches fitness classes, “is a great cook,” Shmarya says. So with her deft hand and his head for business, they took the plunge. “I wanted to be my own boss, and Lainie and I wanted to be able to work together,” he says.

Shmarya took a seminar at MATI, the Jerusalem Business Development Center, subsequent to which he enrolled in a course on opening bars and restaurants in Israel. He tried some of Lainie’s muffin recipes out on his fellow classmates, and they received rave reviews.

Although the rent on Ben-Yehuda is very high, the Richlers reasoned that if they were going to open a shop, they should be as visible as possible to passing trade. “Go big or go home” as the saying goes.

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Shmarya says that according to statistics, 80 percent of food enterprises close within their first year. “Most of them fail due to lack of planning and lack of funding,” he says. “So I did a lot of planning and number crunching.”

In seeking a location, the Richlers started looking at affordable places on small side streets, but that did not sit well with Shmarya. His mentor at MATI told him that he would need 15 more customers a day to afford the rent on Ben-Yehuda. So he decided that a prime location on the popular pedestrian mall would be the best way to reach that target. And, he reports, “So far, so good.”

Opened on July 7, Muffin Boutique is already attracting a steady stream of repeat customers, says Shmarya. And, Lainie adds, “People are telling their friends, ‘You must try this place!’” The café, which is kosher le’mehadrin, is open weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and until 2:30 p.m. on Fridays. In addition to accommodating patrons at the café, Muffin Boutique delivers muffin and bagel platters around the city for parties or Shabbat dinner.

Not only are the Richlers’ muffins a relatively unique item in Jerusalem, but the entire philosophy is one of wholesome nutrition in regard to baked goods.

“All the ingredients are pure and natural,” says Lainie. “We use no food coloring or additives or preservatives or artificial flavoring or hydrogenated fat,” she asserts. “I wouldn’t serve our customers anything that I wouldn’t give my own children,” says the 47-year-old mother of five.

The muffins are a combination of whole wheat (70%) and white flour (30%). “More whole wheat flour than that, and the muffins would be too dense and stodgy,” Lainie explains.

The fresh fruits and vegetables in the muffins (e.g., carrots, zucchini) are chopped and pureed, and demarara sugar or date honey is used as sweetener. And in the all-natural fruit and coffee smoothies, soy milk is used as a base, with bananas in some to add volume and flavor. The café offers fresh salads and juices as well.

In the bagel section, there are various types of the special Montreal-style spheres, such as sesame, poppy seed and cinnamon & raisin, each made in a whole wheat or white flour version. What makes the bagels Montreal style?

“It’s all about the use of water, flour and yeast,” Shmarya says. And, he stresses, “The bagels must be boiled first, and then baked. If it’s not boiled, it’s not a bagel – it’s just bread with a hole in it.”

In regard to pricing, Shmarya says, “Social consciousness is very important to us. Other places charge a lot for food, but I didn’t want to squeeze people,” says the native Montrealer.

But competition is stiff. Surrounded by bakeries and cafes that are offering coffee and cake or a sandwich at NIS 5 a pop, the Richlers have to stand firmly behind their upscale products.

“People will always buy food,” Lainie remarks. Based on her years of experience at the AACI yard sales selling household items, as well as her baked goods, she says, “People will haggle over a few shekels when it comes to buying a second-hand item, but they will readily pay the asking price for food products, especially if they are homemade.”

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During the current situation when not as many people have been venturing out, the new café doesn’t have as much passing trade as the Richlers had hoped for. In that light, Shmarya came up with a good strategy. He approached the Lone Soldiers Fund with the following suggestion: People can order platters for the soldiers, Muffin Boutique will deliver them to the army bases, and 10% of the proceeds will be donated to the Lone Soldiers Fund. The suggestion was gladly accepted.

“People are looking for ways to help the soldiers; the soldiers really appreciate the platters; and we appreciate the increased business,” says Shmarya. “It’s a win-win situation.” In the same vein, they deliver platters to the hospitals as well.

Another, more direct, sales strategy Shmarya has implemented is having one of his genial servers stand outside the shop offering free muffin morsels to passers-by. No opportunity is too great or too small to get customers in the door, he reckons.

Once inside, the ambience is infectious.

Shira Filarsky, the café’s young London-born baker, says, “This is a great place to work. It has a good atmosphere and a friendly, open vibe. The owners want to have a staff that makes you want to come back. And this is wholesome, happy food.”

Server, cashier and coffee maker Seth Blackman seconds the motion. “I love this place. The Richlers really care about the customers and have picked good people to help.”

With a congenial English-speaking staff, a homey atmosphere, an alluring array of homemade baked goods and a dedication to customer service, the new boutique on the block is raring to go. Disneyland may be dubbed “The happiest place on Earth,” but for the Richlers their Muffin Boutique feels like the happiest place on Ben-Yehuda.

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