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I hear it all the time, from friends, from family, from virtual strangers. "I'd like to own a restaurant." "I dream of running a bar." "I could package this [insert special dish] and sell it." And then the inevitable: "What do you think?"
What can I say? Even with experience on your side, the chances of successfully operating a thriving business within the foodstuff profession are laughably minimal. Most of the folks who relate their restaurateuring dreams to me have little clue about the business from the ground floor up; most have never even washed dishes in a busy kitchen, let alone have management know-how.
My stock response is, of course, that opening a restaurant, running a bar, et cetera, is a quick way to lose lots of cash. You'd have more fun flying to Vegas and blowing a big wad there. But in the premillennium Nineties, thanks to superstar chefs and "overnight" entrepreneurs like Debbi (Mrs.) Fields, the food industry has taken on a kind of get-rich-quick glamour it just doesn't have.
If you don't believe me, just ask Sammy Daksa. In September 1997 he started his own cottage industry, Village Pita, in his apartment kitchen, for about 200 bucks. Two years later he's landed clients that include Whole Foods markets, which sells his pita breads and other items, and the Doral Country Club, for whom he caters meals. Now he runs his bakery out of a Miami Gardens Drive-area warehouse, which he had paid for nearly a year before getting all his licenses approved, his million-dollar liability insurance in order, and his equipment in place. To date, all told, he's invested $90,000 for the privilege of getting into work at 6:00 a.m. and manually baking 150 to 250 bags of pita (four breads per bag) per day in warehouse Bay 5 by noon.
The dramatic increase in Daksa's business bears testimony to the quality of his flatbreads, meat pies, tabbouleh, falafel, and hummus, to name just a few of his flavorful specialties. But the constant cooking and baking also means perpetual cleaning, for which Daksa employs one or two people on a per diem basis. In addition, after his baking hours, Daksa delivers his foodstuffs and does all his PR, advertising, and marketing by his lonesome.
On his "off" time he also browses through the markets that carry his products to ensure his creations are not getting stale or moldy. "I have a shelf life," he tells me as I visit with him in flour-dusted Bay 5, where the heat of the natural gas-operated pita oven still warms the room like an internal sun. "Because I don't use chemicals or preservatives, my pitas won't stay for more than four days. I'd rather take them back and give credit to the markets than have them sell bad stuff to the customers." Daksa backs up his words with actions -- he's pulled his items out of markets that don't respect his "sell by" dates. "It reflects on me," he says, "not necessarily the market. A customer who has had my product from one store and didn't like it because it was stale won't buy it from another store."
Like any entrepreneur, Daksa is stuck in a Catch-22: The more business he takes in, the harder he'll have to work. He doesn't seem to mind. A few more steady accounts (or an investing partner) and he'll be able to come up with the $150,000 in capital it will take for him to go fully automated. Then he won't have to mix, cut, and press the dough himself, and he can churn out 2400 bags of pita in the same eight hours it takes him to currently do 250. More clients also means he can expand, taking over the empty bay next door, and hire permanent, full-time employees.
So glamorous, no, but prosperous, yes. That makes Daksa one of the lucky ones, and also one of the smart ones. An Israeli who moved to Miami in 1995, Daksa comes from a family that runs a large bakery in Israel. His maternal grandfather taught him to make the breads, and his mother, Amira Nator, allows him to use all her recipes for the spinach pies and grape leaves he also sells. "I saw a place for my products," he says simply. "The Jewish community needed me."
And there it begins, because just like you can't drink a pint of Guinness in an Irish pub without becoming embroiled in some argument or another, it's pretty difficult to talk pita, the unofficial bread of the Middle East, without breaking off into politics and religion. Daksa himself, he tells me, isn't Jewish. He is a Druze, a member of a religious offshoot of Islam. The Druze are most common in Syria and Lebanon, but also in Israel, where they are often allied with the Jews. So it isn't too odd that Daksa feels comfortable in Miami, where the Jews, whether they come from Israel, Russia, or New Jersey, are clamoring for fresh product.
What is strange is how Daksa thinks he is treated by members of other Middle Eastern ethnic groups here in South Florida, such as the Lebanese. "Because I speak both Arabic and Hebrew -- my first language is Arabic -- and because my religion is Druze, the Arabs I meet expect me to be Palestinian. One [Arab] told me I should be ashamed of myself because I called myself Israeli. But I am not Palestinian. I served in the Israeli army. My first loyalty is to Israel."
To that end Daksa's pita isn't really what Americans know as pocket bread. It's laffa, a thicker and softer version than the commercial sandwich stuff. Daksa calls it tabon, and it has an aroma I last smelled while watching a baker pull scores of them out of an underground oven in Morocco.
Yet Daksa isn't so blindly loyal to Israel that he doesn't see his nation's faults, one of which is the way the businesses are operated. "It's like the Mob over there. Everyone is unethical," he admits. Say what you will about Miami, but at least here it's usually only our politicians who screw the public.
As with many immigrants, possibilities, in the end, drew Daksa here. But an American wife, a newfound fluency in Spanish, and a thriving business could be just the tickets for him to transfer some of his loyalty from Israel to South Florida, which at close to six million has roughly the same population. Thanks to Sam, it only takes a Village to provide us with supple, authentic, and fresh pita bread.