Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Is This The Best Bread In Auckland? The Street Food Eatery That Opened Up In Lockdown And Became A Social Media Sensation

There isn’t a job on this planet that hasn’t been touched by the pandemic in one way or another, but even in the hardest times, life goes on and people adapt. Capsule is talking to workers from all sorts of fields who have had to find ways to keep serving people, while almost every aspect of their jobs changed. Meet one half of the couple behind the hugely popular street food company Carmel, who were set to open their first eatery the week New Zealand suddenly went into Level 4 – and how they quickly made it work so they could keep making the best pita bread in Auckland.

If you have ever been lucky enough to travel to the Middle East, you’ll know that the bread is on another damn level from anywhere else in the world. It’s fluffy, it’s soft, it’s chewy and it’s taken very, very seriously. Born in New Zealand but raised in Israel, Carmel Davidovitch is the co-founder of the Auckland eatery Carmel and the start of this business was constructed entirely around her absolute enthusiasm to recreate the famous pita bread down here in Aotearoa.

A few years later, it’s been so successful that she and her partner Tomer were able to open their business during Auckland’s Level 3 and amass such a devoted following that, now that we’re allowed out of our homes, there are (socially distanced!) queues every weekend outside their shop as people wait patiently to try this unbelievable food.

“If I can be as modest as I can, once you try the food, you understand that it’s different.”

“If I can be as modest as I can, once you try the food, you understand that it’s different,” Carmel says. “You understand that we pour our heart into it, that we really care about every bite you take. We want it to be perfect in every bite.”

For expats living in Aotearoa, the Carmel eatery is the closest way possible to get a taste of home while our borders are shut. “A few weeks ago, we had one of the best ever compliments we’ve ever received from an Iraqi customer,” Carmel says. “She comes here every week and she wrote to us that every week she explains to her boys that ‘this is the taste of the Old City.’ And we were so moved by that.”

“I know that we come from a really tough neighbourhood in the world and there’s a lot of tension around the Middle East. But we really believe that food brings everyone together and that’s an idea that a lot of Middle Eastern people will connect to.”

It was that connection that Carmel was trying to hold onto when she and Tomer, along with her three brothers, moved to Aotearoa five years ago. Born to a Kiwi mum and an Israeli dad, New Zealand had always been seen as a kind of second home and so Carmel and her siblings had wanted to explore that other side of their upbringing. But boy, did they miss the food. Carmel decided to host traditional dinners at home, full of the beloved Israeli cuisine for people who were also missing the flavours of the Middle East.

She and Tomer got a lot of positive feedback from those who attended and so Carmel decided her next step would be to perfect the pita recipe, even attending a boulangerie course back in Israel. Over the next few years, they tested out their creations at market days with a food truck, before committing to opening a bricks and mortar store this year… Unfortunately, they were due to open the same week that the country moved into a surprise Level 4 lockdown.

“I know that we come from a really tough neighbourhood in the world and there’s a lot of tension around the Middle East. But we really believe that food brings everyone together and that’s an idea that a lot of Middle Eastern people will connect to.”

“Initially, we really didn’t want to open during Level Three because we had put so much effort into the space and the whole point is to welcome people into this space and have them feel like they’re at home, so we can spoil them and make sure they’re having the best experience and the best food,” Carmel says. “Doing it when you’re standing at the door is so not part of our culture.”

So, they decided to press pause on their grand opening and do online orders and deliveries instead. But the demand was growing and growing, so they committed to one day a week. And now, every Saturday, there is a permanent line of people outside their establishment in inner-city Auckland, waiting happily for falafel-stuffed pitas, chicken schnitzel sandwiches and fresh baked goods, including rugelach, and cheesecake Danishes.

“I think one of the biggest things when you run a business is to understand that, first of all, there is a lot that you can control, but there are a few things you can’t. And when you realise that, and you don’t fight it, your mental health state is better because you realise that it doesn’t help you to stress out.”

While a lot of Aotearoa may have been optimistic that Covid-19 would miss us (both the first time, and then with Delta), having family members back in Israel meant that Carmel and Tomer were very aware of the havoc it would wreak down here. “Hearing what was happening in Israel, we were like ‘we need to put our thinking caps on and be creative, because we’re in an industry that’s going to get hit the hardest.’” As Auckland moved in and out of lockdowns, Carmel jokes that they were like “a little bit like ants, in that they work really hard in the summer and then in the winter, they can rest.”

That meant running events and the food truck in the summer, knowing that winter would most likely mean another lockdown. And all of this was documented on their social media, which Tomer runs, and Carmel says was the key for building the community. “You need to keep relevant and you need to share your journey and share your thoughts,” she says. “It is scary, but you need to be brave and you need to believe in what you’re doing. And we do – we really believe that we’re bringing something unique and great and wholesome and healthy. We want Kiwis to be able to experience a different place when we can’t really travel.”

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