Have you seen the muffin man?

A new downtown cafe offers a tantalizing array that includes blueberry streusel and pumpkin-cream cheese.

Shmarya and Lainie Richler stand outside their new downtown cafe, Muffin Boutique. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shmarya and Lainie Richler stand outside their new downtown cafe, Muffin Boutique.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 Street is chic and unique in the capital. 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 his wife’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 explains.
Shmarya took a seminar at MATI, the Jerusalem Business Development Center, after 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.
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, they 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 than he would on a side street in order 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.”
Open since July 6, Muffin Boutique is already attracting a steady stream of repeat customers, he says. And, Lainie adds, “People are telling their friends, ‘You must try this place!’” The café, which is kosher lemehadrin, 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.
Not only are the Richlers’ muffins a relatively novel 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. “The muffins are whole-wheatbased, and we use no food coloring, additives, preservatives, artificial flavoring or hydrogenated fat.”
Adds the 47-year-old mother of five, “I wouldn’t serve our customers anything that I wouldn’t give my own children.”
The fresh fruits and vegetables in the muffins (e.g., carrots, zucchini) are chopped on the spot, and demerara sugar or date honey is used as sweetener. And the all-natural fruit and coffee smoothies have soy milk 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 Montreal-style spheres, such as sesame, poppy seed, cinnamon raisin, and rosemary rock salt. Each comes in a whole wheat and a white flour version.
What makes the bagels Montreal style? “It’s all about the use of water, flour and yeast,” says Shmarya, a native Montrealer, stressing that “the bagels must be boiled first in honey water, 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, he says, “Social consciousness is very important to us. Other places charge a lot for food, but I didn’t want to squeeze people.”
But competition is stiff. Surrounded by bakeries and cafés that are offering coffee and cake or a sandwich at NIS 5 a pop, the Richlers have to stand firmly behind their upscale products.
During the current security situation, when not as many people have been venturing out, the new café hasn’t had as much passing trade as the couple had hoped for. In that light, Shmarya came up with a 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 go 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 hospitals as well.
Another, more direct sales strategy he 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 one is 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 a staff that makes you want to come back. And this is wholesome, happy food.”
Server and barista Seth Blackman seconds the sentiment.
“I love this place. The Richlers really care about the customers and have selected good people to help,” he says.
With this homey atmosphere, cheerful, English-speaking staff and an alluring array of homemade baked goods, the new boutique on the block is raring to go. Disneyland may be “the happiest place on Earth,” but for the Richlers, Muffin Boutique feels like the happiest place on Ben-Yehuda.