Voices of Jerusalem: Ultimate felafel family

Loren Minsky speaks to Yossi Vashady, 55, owner of the hugely popular Shalom Felafel chain spread around the Jerusalem area.

June 18, 2013 15:59
Yossi Vashady, owner of Shalom Felafel

Yossi Vashady, owner of Shalom Felafel. (photo credit: Courtesy)

“We’re the oldest felafel business in Jerusalem,” says Yossi Vashady, owner of Shalom Felafel, a franchise with ten branches in total: eight in Jerusalem, one in Modiin and one in Mevasseret Zion. The stores are either Glatt Kosher Parev and specialize in felafel (recognizable by their green branding) or Kosher Rabbinate meat restaurants that also offer shwarma and meat on the grill. The store on Bezalel Street is a real Jerusalem institution and is known for attracting throngs of people all day long.

Shalom Felafel is a family business with a long history that stretches back to the early 1940s. Yossi’s father ran away from Yemen in 1935 (it was illegal to leave at that time) and came to the neighborhood of Nachlaot, where he worked in construction. He was good at what he did and made money, which was unusual in the economic and political climate back then. “It was a tough time on the brink of the War of Independence,” says Yossi. “My father was involved in helping the Hagana, Etzel and other organizations.”

When Yossi’s grandmother arrived from Yemen, she pushed Yossi’s father to do something food-related; something she knew about and could help out with. Since food was scarce, Yossi’s father reckoned that opening a felafel store would be part business, part charity offering to the community. He was able to buy oil, hummus and basic ingredients in bulk and opened up shop selling felafel, salads and bread from a portable cart on Bezalel Street in Nachlaot.

The first five years were challenging with the war and bombs falling nearby. However, after the war it turned into a thriving business and people would wait in long lines down the street eager for Yossi’s father to open. “It was like the gates opened in every way,” shares Yossi. “Though my parents had been unable to conceive for 14 years and two of their children had died in Yemen, in 1949 they were blessed with the first of what would be six children.”

By the time Yossi was born and from as early as he can recall, Yossi’s father never overworked and opened for business just a few hours a day,  generally from around 4 p.m. until 10 p.m. Back then, as now, the nearest felafel store was in Mahane Yehuda market or in the city center, and the felafel continued to be in demand until Yossi joined the ranks in 1980 after a year of traveling post-army.

Then,  in 1981, Yossi’s father died suddenly. “I found myself in a position where I simply had to open up shop the next day,” remembers Yossi.” However, Yossi handled the transition and responsibility with ease. He worked in the afternoon and managed to also study computers and work in construction on the side. That was until 1986, when Yossi got married and needed to take it more seriously in order to earn a better salary. So, that is what he did.

In 1996 the municipality wanted to widen Bezalel Street and Yossi moved the store to its current spot across the street. “The move was a push for us to grow in more ways,” says Yossi. A cousin of Yossi’s, who was working with him in the store, wanted to open up a branch on Ben Zakkai Street. Yossi agreed and his cousin ran it successfully for seven years. Since then many stores have opened, some of which are still open and others of which have since closed.

Shalom Felafel has retained the original recipe for its felafel, which was probably originally created by Yossi’s grandmother. “Although in recent years there has been a trend toward green felafel, we have stuck with our red balls that have been popular all along,” says Yossi. “Another special thing we do here is hilbe, which is supposed to be extremely healthy and beneficial to cholesterol and blood pressure. The hilbe is based on my aunt’s recipe, and it’s so good that we sell it frozen.”

Yossi spends most of the time that he works on the business in the factory in Talpiot. The factory produces big quantities of the felafel mix, which then gets sent out to the stores. They have also been involved in catering (parev) for the past four years. “Last week we catered for a group of around 70 people right by Gaza,” says Yossi. Yossi’s sister is the main chef at the factory and is largely responsible for overseeing the workers and operations.

With his sister’s involvement, Yossi has been able to take time off to study and is currently finishing his second year of a teaching degree at Michlelet Hertzogin Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion. He studies twice a week and has another two years to go before he qualifies. His plans are to teach Torah and Tanach. “I love the subject,” says Yossi. “So I thought to myself why not do something with it?”

Yossi has been married for more than 25 years, and has two daughters and three sons. The family moved from Jerusalem to nearby Alon Shvut eight years ago as Yossi and his wife were impressed by the modern orthodox education on offer for their children, and also love the Yemenite Synagogue there. Yossi’s wife is studying to be a couple’s counselor. “Although she always helps out whenever we need her to in the business, most of the time she works on various charity projects,” says Yossi.

The family may consider moving back to their home in Arnona, Jerusalem when their youngest daughter (currently in ninth grade) finishes high school. “I love Jerusalem and its surrounds and could never live elsewhere,” says Yossi. “The only drawback to Arnona is the half-hour walk to the nearest Yemenite synagogue on Shabbat.”
One of their sons runs Shalom Felafel’s biggest branch in Talpiot. They have one child studying literature in Tel Aviv, one in the army, one going to the army next year, and another in school. “Though I would love all my children to get involved in the business in the future, I would have no problem if they chose otherwise,” reflects Yossi.

“The best felafel I’ve ever eaten? Apart from ours, Maoz on King George Street in town is great,” says Yossi, who clearly does not feel a sense of competition. “People know Shalom Felafel and love us. We have a winning concept and continue to give our customers what they enjoy, and so they are loyal. We also try to offer great service. For example, the manager of the store on Bezalel Street, Yechiel, has been with us for 19 years and is known for giving customers warm, personal attention.”

“I love pay day,” says Yossi. “I enjoy seeing people getting paid for what they do.” Another highlight for Yossi is checking on the quality of the food on a weekly basis. “It’s important that we continue to offer the same high standard we always have, that we don’t become complacent and that we strive to constantly improve. I check on things like how long a felafel ball is fried for, how fresh the bread is, how regularly the staff change the oil. I love it because I know I’m doing a good thing for our customers and for us.”

Yossi admits that the hardest part can be dealing with workers. “When someone announces that they’re not coming to work the next day, what can you do? Since we’re not a place that has tens of workers, every worker is an extremely important part of the business.”

Yossi is a big believer in breaking up routine and keeping things interesting. The business changes it logo and the look and feel of the branding every few years, and Yossi plans to launch two new stores in the upcoming months with a different style. His studying is also part of his need to keep things fresh.

To unwind, Yossi likes to travel around Israel with his family. He enjoys walking and jogging and plans to do The Israel Trail. He also finds his studies relaxing, and enjoys studying Daf Yomi. “I remember finding it amazing when we went to visit my sister in Switzerland, that people there were learning the same page as me. It made me feel part of a larger group and it gives me direction for the future,” says Yossi.

“I would ideally love to retire and teach and come back to visit the business,” says Yossi. “But I am well aware that plans don’t always work out the way we’d like.”
“So much is not in our hands. Themost important thing is to be happy,” shares Yossi. “I was thinking about the point of Jewish people praying three times a day, each time with 18 blessings. It really teaches us to know how to say thanks, and how not to take anything for granted.”

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