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US-born food truck owner’s Golan Heights eateries are a rolling success

7 min read

This is the second of a two-part series on the Go Beyond program, made possible thanks to a partnership between Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund and Nefesh B’Nefesh. The Go Beyond program helps new immigrants to Israel fulfill their goal of making a new home in Israel’s beautiful periphery — towns and cities located in the north and south of the country.

Food truck owner Shimon Shain’s mind is clearly not on the telephone interview he’s supposed to be having with The Times of Israel as he interrupts himself to ask customers whether they would like more ketchup or tell them how much they owe, all in fluent – if slightly American-inflected – Hebrew.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I tried to schedule this for what I thought would be a quiet time.”

The apology wasn’t without a smattering of pride and satisfaction – and understandably so, given the work Shain, a United States native who moved to Israel in 2016, has put in to build budding food truck empire Shimmy’s up in Israel’s Golan, a lush area with impressive nature hikes several hours to the north of Tel Aviv’s tourist-crowded beaches.

Shain, 35, grew up in a family of 12 children in the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Crown Heights – home to the world headquarters of the Chabad Hasidic group. He spotted an opportunity when he noticed that the nature-loving day trippers who visit his new home of Hispin in the Golan Heights didn’t have many places to grab a quick bite during the day.

The business started out offering sushi – a dish at that time still considered to be somewhat exotic in this area – and then expanded the menu to include sandwiches, salads, falafel, fish and chips, waffles, and more. Now, the food trucks are a hit with the Hebrew media and video segments covering Shimmy’s have gotten hundreds of thousands of views. The operation has expanded to a second truck, which Shain re-outfitted with a meat-based menu ahead of the Passover holiday (kosher dietary laws prohibit the cooking or serving of milk and meat together), located next to his successful dairy food truck in the center of Hispin.

Shimon Shain’s meat and dairy food trucks located alongside one another in the center of Hispin, in the Golan Heights, April 2021. (Courtesy)

Shain moved to Israel in 2016 with his family via the Go Beyond program, an initiative by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL) in partnership with Nefesh B’Nefesh which helps new immigrants wishing to move to less densely populated parts of the country, often in the north or south. He spent time in Israel before immigrating, attending a kosher culinary arts program in Jerusalem, and met his future wife during his studies there.

Now, he’s providing nutritional and emotional sustenance to his community on Israel’s periphery.

“Through its Go Beyond initiative, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and Nefesh B’Nefesh, have been partnering for over a decade to assist new immigrants to move to northern and southern Israel as well as Jerusalem,” says Ronnie Vinnikov, the chief development officer of KKL-JNF. “Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael is celebrating its 120th anniversary and has been working since its inception to assist the residents of the periphery in all areas of life: agriculture, education and more. We salute all the new immigrants like Shimmy who are all helping to strengthen and develop the State of Israel by contributing greatly to our national resilience.”

Shimon Shain’s food truck in the Golan Heights. (Courtesy)

The Times of Israel spoke by phone to Shain about his experiences making the move to Israel, what life is like now, and how his now-booming business got its start. The following interview has been edited for length.

Can you tell us about your history with Israel?

I was born and raised in Crown Heights, but about 15 years ago I came to Israel for a year for a kosher culinary program in Jerusalem. I actually met my wife while I was there and we got married about six months later, and then I finished the program and we went back to the US.

We were thinking then of staying in Israel, but like many people, we thought that we’d go back to the US to make money and then come back. So we went back to the States — and we didn’t make too much money, but we always wanted to live in Israel permanently.

A sandwich from Shimmy’s, the food truck by US-born immigrant Shimon Shain. (Courtesy)

Did you know you were going to participate in the Go Beyond program from the beginning of your plans to move to Israel?

It occurred to us to try to live first in Anglo communities, but then we decided that if we’re coming to Israel, we wanted to really live in Israel. So, we specifically wanted a place that was nice and with some English speakers so we could communicate, but it wasn’t a priority to have primarily English speakers there.

What we were looking for was to go somewhere where it would be affordable to build a house when we were ready, and the extra grant money was also something that really encouraged us to make our way to the north or the south. The south seemed to be too hot for us, and we liked the green forests, so we moved north and we’re very happy that we’re here.

Nefesh B’Nefesh guided us along the whole process — they made it really simple and easy. We have an aunt who moved to Israel many years ago, and she told us from that experience how hard it was. It’s a very hard decision to move to Israel, but having an organization to work with us and help us along really made a major difference.

Desserts at Shimmy’s, a well-known food truck in the Golan Heights founded by US-born immigrant Shimon Shain. (Courtesy)

Were you involved in the food industry in the United States before moving to Israel?

I did a few stints, but for me it’s been mostly a hobby, even from when I was pretty young. I started when I was 14 or 15, and by the time I was 16, I was running a kitchen for one of the big summer camps in upstate New York. I did that for a few summers, and then I came to Israel and went to the kosher culinary program in Jerusalem. When I went back to the States I did some catering, worked in fast food – just looking to get a taste of different parts of the food industry to see what might be right for me. But I didn’t end up making that my career. But it was always still my hobby, and whenever I would get stressed out, that’s what I would always turn to. I’ve always found it to be interesting, fun, and enjoyable.

On the festival of Sukkot, food truck owner Shimon Shain constructed a traditional makeshift hut for diners to eat in. (Courtesy)

What gave you the idea to open a food truck?

We didn’t spend our Nefesh B’Nefesh grant money right away. We put it in the bank and I got the first job I could, just so we could see what would be the best move for us. I was working at the kitchen in a local school, and the whole time I was keeping an eye out for what the needs are, what might be missing over here. And one thing I saw was that so many tourists are coming here to the Golan, but there wasn’t really any food for them – nowhere to stop and grab a bite during the day. In the evenings there were some places, but in the daytime really not so much. So our idea was to go for something that would be good all year round, but also be good for the tourist season. For several reasons it wasn’t practical for us to open up a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but we knew that we could open a food truck. And actually, our first truck was delivered on our one-year anniversary of moving to Israel.

Members of Israel’s Knesset visit Shimon Shain’s food truck in the Golan Heights. (Courtesy)

You’ve been featured in the Israeli media and your food trucks have gained quite a reputation. What’s the secret to your success?

Well, it wasn’t an easy journey. Almost immediately after we invested in opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant by Nahal El Al in 2018, there was an E. coli scare at the river which forced us to close the business. We took a major loss and were still paying off the cost of the business long after it closed. That was a really tough year. Business in general was pretty good, but we were just bleeding so much money from that loss, we had to figure out how to get things back in order.

About a year ago I said that if I want the business to thrive, I’ve got to bring God into the business. So I started taking one percent of whatever came into the register and giving to a local charity here in the Golan. Since then our sales have gone up, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence, but we were featured on Kan (Israeli news channel), and it feels like every month we’re featured in another place. It started with the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund newsletter, and took off from there. On a day like today, which would normally be a quiet day, we’re doing triple or four times the business we’d have done a year ago. There are lines from when I get here in the morning until we close.

Earlier in my life, I was very strict about giving 10 percent of my income to charity (in accordance with the biblical laws of giving tithes), and I stopped doing it for a bit, and then I said that I really have to start doing this again. Now, every month I go to a local grocery and take some of that 10 percent charity, and I pay off someone’s tab. After that rough year we had, we know that these kinds of gestures can make a real difference to people.

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