“I became interested in eating well for the simple reason that it is good for you. You simply need to be aware and open to the idea,” says Hezi Alon, the humble owner of The Natural Choice Bakery in Jerusalem. Popular with those who have food sensitivities or those who are health conscious, the Natural Choice offers tasty breads, confectionery and baked goods that are made using high quality natural (and where possible organic) ingredients.
“As a child I had dyslexia and ADHD, although it was not diagnosed at the time, and I compensated for my inability to learn with a lot of sport – football, unicycling and more," explains Hezi. "I loved to play and it was a great outlet and release."
Hezi says that his involvement in sport lead him organically toward a healthier path. "I saw and felt that eating well was important.”
At around the age of 12 Hezi was expelled from school and decided to study car mechanics part-time and to work at a garage fixing cars. “On the one hand the job gave me self-confidence, but on the other hand it was too laborious for me," Hezi says.
Conditions were particularly tough back then and Hezi and his colleagues worked exposed to the elements – sun, wind, rain and snow.
After the army, with the help of his academically-inclined brothers, Hezi tenaciously completed his bagrut
(matriculation). He then went on to study philosophy at Hebrew University, which was a dream for Hezi. “It was an amazing opportunity to turn my beliefs on their head, and to destroy what I thought I knew about life, God and other existential questions,” he explains. “Those were the most fascinating and exciting years of my life.”
Hezi then went on to study carpentry, which he found too dangerous. The light bulb moment happened about 25 years ago after a chat with a friend who owned a health shop. They discussed what was available at the time and what was not, and Hezi saw a gap in the market. “Nothing similar existed at the time,” recalls Hezi. “It made sense to start a bakery catering to the health conscious market.”
“I started slowly with a little bakery on Jaffa Road, selling only what there was an obvious need for – healthy and tasty whole-wheat sugar-free cookies,” says Hezi.
Hezi says that he struggled to get hold of even one bag of whole-wheat flour and he used to go in his small car to the flour mill to collect it. Back then, he worked hard as a seller, helper, cleaner and doing whatever needed to be done.
Open to suggestions, the business evolved, and moved on to cakes, bread and even products without any flour at all. “I received a lot of positive feedback and clearly was onto a good concept,” reflects Hezi. “This infused me with energy and strength to continue, and soon we were offering a wide range of yeast-free, wheat-free and egg-free items. Hezi says that he always loved taking requests to the chef and seeing what he could come up with.
Hezi also welcomed feedback from alternative practitioners, and incorporated suggestions from a wide range of practitioners including the famous Dr. Morgenstern. “Twenty years ago we hadn’t even heard about spelt, but after hearing how much better it is for the body, I made a plan to bring it to Israel,” says Hezi.
About twelve years ago, due to the light rail construction on Jaffa Road, Hezi moved the business to its current location on Agripas Street. Seven and a half years ago, he met his partner Osnat at an art exhibition on bread baking at the Israel Museum where she worked as a curator. These days, Osnat is involved in the business and works part-time managing the accounts, public relations, and suggesting new recipes. In addition to art, Osnat has a background in medicine, biology and nutrition, which is put to good use.
Unlike other business owners in the industry, Hezi delegates most responsibilities to long-standing managers that he trusts. “I am happy that the business runs itself,” says Hezi. “Sometimes I don’t even think about the bakery for a few days. This time out gives me the opportunity to gain perspective and think of new ideas for the business.”
Though he doesn't have much of a routine, Hezi says he is kept busy with a lot of sport including weekly off-road motorcycling in the Judean desert.
“What’s my best part of the day? About three years ago, I began learning piano, and I love sitting and playing for few minutes first thing in the morning,” says Hezi. “Playing piano really challenges me.”
Hezi loves living in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem. "It has a great village-like atmosphere yet is in the center of the city,” he reflects. “My hope is that in the long-term Jerusalem will be a place for everybody and can mirror the diversity and peaceful atmosphere of Nachlaot.”
“Making money is not the point of what I do. I drive a regular car, live in a normal home and live humbly,” muses Hezi. “I feel good that we make a healthier lifestyle accessible to all, and I’m happy that other bakeries have opened up doing the same thing.”
Hezi plans on opening a small café next door to the bakery in the next few months. “We’ll start slowly with a simple menu and then refine what we offer as our customers give us feedback. It’s the way I like to do things.” Osnat is currently enjoying coming up with creative and delicious dishes that will appeal to the bakery’s customers.
Hezi and Osnat love travelling and hope to get to Switzerland in the next few months and the North Pole one day. “Other than that I am excited by more of the same – watching the bakery grow and flourish,” says Hezi. “And the prospect of the new café of course.”iTravelJerusalem.com is a new online international travel portal offering all the latest information on things to do, places to eat and places to stay in Jerusalem