Friday, October 18, 2013

Secrets of Success - Thirsty Camel Cafe

Ilan Goldenblatt, owner of the Thirsty Camel Café at 14 Victoria Crescent is a self-described radical. Just glance around the restaurant and you will find articles on ending violence against women, food identity, the marijuana referendum, and recycling used restaurant oil into fuel. The diversity of downtown was what attracted him to his China Steps location and his commitment to serving healthy food and building his community has made his business a downtown success.

DNBIA: Did you always want to be a chef?
Ilan: I have no formal training, I’m not a chef I’m a cook. I grew up with amazing food around me, and as a server and bartender for 10 years in Israel, Whistler and Tofino I got interested in what was going on in the back of the house.

DNBIA: Why a Middle Eastern Restaurant?
Ilan: I grew up in Israel and I love the food. I have been eating the food at the restaurant every single day for nine years and when I go to Israel with my wife Lynelle, we sample similar cuisines every day or eat at my mom’s place. We haven’t “Canadianized” anything in this restaurant. The food here is the same as what you would get on the streets of Tel Aviv.

DNBIA: When did you open the Thirsty Camel Cafe?
Ilan: I opened the business with a partner in 2004, he left, but we are still friends. I had already learned to cook and I still browse cookbooks for inspiration. I’ve always had a really good palate. If I taste something I can figure out what’s in there. Bold flavours like lemon, garlic, cumin, chilies and spice, all those flavors excite my palate.

DNBIA: What are you best known for and why?
Ilan: We serve real food the way your grandmother would have eaten it if she ate in the Middle East.  Bio food technology has not entered our kitchen. We make everything fresh, nothing is frozen or processed and our pitas are baked locally.

DNBIA: Why did you choose this location?
Ilan: At that time there weren’t many funky places downtown. It wasn’t appealing or attracting a lot of people. So we set out to make something that would appeal to a broader base; students, the downtown workers, south-enders and people from Gabriola, and we were hoping to attract people from the north end. We have our regular clientele now, but it took four or five years for that to happen.

DNBIA: What does the future hold for the Thirsty Camel?
Ilan: My business was steady and predictable and after the economic meltdown in 2008 it has been very unpredictable. Do I change the orders? Make less food? It’s been a challenge, especially since everything is prepared from scratch on site. We have given some thought to moving to a larger location, but we would stay downtown. It is the only place I would do business in Nanaimo. Community is really important to me and the people downtown and the south end in general really invest time and energy into their community. For a couple of years I considered buying one of the residences on Albert Street and converting it into a restaurant. I even thought about buying the vacant lot on Albert & Roberts Street, but that level of investment in these financial times is not feasible. Our other choice would be Victoria – people line up for food in Victoria.

DNBIA: What advice would you give to a business starting out in Nanaimo?
Ilan: It’s better to expand then contract. Start a small business and grow; its way less painful. By the time you are contracting you have lost thousands of dollars.

DNBIA: Why should a business locate downtown?
Ilan: Downtown is great because we have unique, independent businesses here. Those are the ones that I want to spend my money at. Even franchises which say they are locally owned the money is not staying in the community. I manage the Nanaimo Farmer’s Market and I am always telling people, if you want to have more jobs here you have to support the local business owner.

DNBIA: How many employees do you have?
Ilan: We have five employees; two fulltime and three part-time. Our employees are all getting the hours that they want. I work fulltime and my wife part-time.

DNBIA: What about your business makes you the most proud?
Ilan: I’m proud of sticking to my guns with a lot of things like not having aspartame or high fructose corn syrup in my fridge. Not lowering my standards of service or ingredients when things were difficult. We also began composting 4 years before it became the law. We have been recycling from first day we opened. I feel good about my relationship with my staff. Restaurants our size and type always have lots of turnaround. We have had staff stay with us for two or three years. Recently, my wife and I went to Israel for 9 days and the staff managed the restaurant. You can only do that when you have great employees.


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