When Yogibar Frozen Dessert officially opens its doors for the first time on April 29, there will be a touch of the old world on the menu.
Customers may not notice it among the exotic new world flavours for frozen yogurt, such as cotton candy, but the recipe for the basic plain yogurt comes to Thornhill all the way from Aleppo, Syria. That’s the hometown of the Esses family, who operate Yogibar along with five other kosher restaurants and cafes.
“This goes back to the original yogurt recipe,” he said.
Back in the day, Shlomo Esses recounted, his grandfather, also named Shlomo, produced dairy products in Aleppo and shipped much of it to the Jewish community in Beirut.
Chances are the Jews in Beirut didn’t enjoy 15 different flavours of frozen yogurt. They likely also didn’t have the selection of kosher eateries to choose from, as they do in Toronto. Five of them (soon to be six) belong to one family, who have been in the kosher food business since 1984. It’s a tradition that dates back to the 1940s and 1950s, when Shlomo Esses, the grandfather, provided milk, cheeses and other dairy products, said Shlomo, the grandson.
In 1948, the family moved to Beirut and continued the business. In 1977, after a stay in Israel, Shlomo’s father, Albert, made the move to Toronto. His first business was Dairy Treats, a restaurant on Bathurst that’s still going strong. Since then, they have added Café Sheli, Oasis Café, Miami Grill and Bistro Grande. Yogibar makes six.
Like the other kosher restaurants in Toronto, this is a family business that requires lots of hands-on attention, Shlomo said. “It’s either me or my father” putting in the long hours, Shlomo said.
All the restaurants’ baked goods are produced in-house. Baking starts at 10 p.m. and goes to 7 a.m. The catering side of the business kicks off at 6 a.m.
“My father is there real early,” Shlomo said.
Altogether, it’s a 24-hour operation that would tax the stamina of any businessman.
“It’s a hard business to begin with,” even before taking into account all the steps that need to be taken to ensure the restaurants retain their kosher certification, Esses said.
And like any restaurant business, there are challenges. So far, unlike many other kosher restaurants that have come and gone, the Esses family’s eateries remain going concerns.
With the economic slowdown of the last few years, people are changing their eating habits, Esses said. They’re still eating out, but spending less.
People are more health conscious than in previous eras, so the menu has to reflect that by offering more salads and low fat options, he said.
At the Oasis Café downtown, located in the Exchange Tower, customers favour salads accompanied by low-fat dressings on the side. They even offer low-fat breads, he said.
Still, another trend is sure to please kosher restaurateurs. Esses said he’s noticed “more people are eating kosher. The community has grown a lot, and a lot of people are going back to their roots.”
Sort of like the Esses family from Aleppo.