The bacon cheeseburger at Jerusalem's Crave is the best in the country, James Oppenheim boasts. Those are fighting words coming from the co-owner of a kosher restaurant, where swine is eschewed and dairy kept away from meat. But the Sam I Am sliders arrive perfectly medium rare—pink, juicy, and flavorful—with vegan cheese, lamb bacon and an egg on top.
He might be right.
But besides blending American West Coast and East Coast street food (think burritos packed with pastrami, kimchi, and rice) in the Middle East, Crave is cooking up change in the Israeli restaurant scene—specifically, by doing away with tips.
Oppenheim, one of the eatery's four owners and an ebullient father of nine, poured some Jack Daniel's as Bob Marley reverberated off the raw concrete and exposed piping of the industrial chic interior. (Collectively, the four owners of Crave have nearly 30 children.)
"Someone left a tip, and I chased him down the street and gave it back to him," Oppenheim beamed.
The restaurant's servers and bartenders receive a surprisingly fair hourly wage for serving customers Baja fish tacos, beefy rice bowls, craft beer, and tea-infused cocktails, rather than surviving off unreliable tips.
If you think American waiters get screwed, Israelis have it even worse. US federal law mandates a minimum of $2.13 per hour to tipped wage workers. Israeli law, on the other hand, allows restaurant owners to pay waiters' base salaries entirely out of tips left by customers.
Instead of pocketing the 10 percent or more that's customarily left on a bill, that cash is pooled between wait staff on a shift, their base pay (usually around NIS 20, about $5, per hour) deducted by their boss, and the remainder divvied up between them.
Communist Party lawmaker Dov Khenin proposed a bill last year to mandate a minimum wage for restaurant workers, who would receive their tips in addition to a salary and benefits. "The bottom line is that the average waiter loses around NIS 7,000 [$1,800] per year because they don't have social rights," Khenin said in defense of the bill. Despite having more than half of Israel's 120 parliamentarians' backing, the legislation was delayed and effectively buried by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government last March.
Crave's prices are slightly higher than average—NIS 33 ($8.80) for a half liter of craft beer instead of NIS 30 ($8), for example—to account for service, but the food and experience more than makes up for the difference.
For Oppenheim, tipping culture simply generates bad vibes—between customer and waiters, between waiters and owners, between wait staff and the guys in the kitchen sweating buckets to get food cooked and dishes cleaned.
By dispensing with tips, waiters can focus more on quality of service, server Naomi Yitzhak said. Staff make between $10 and $12 an hour, well above minimum wage, but don't have to handle cash.
Yitzhak started at Crave when it opened in November, having worked as a server and tending bar. "There's more peace of mind for the waiters," she said, and though they work hard, "the salary is worth it."
"Waiters understand that there's something else going on here," Yitzhak said.
The restaurant adopts a different approach, both when it comes to food and overall experience. Chef Todd Aarons grew up around Los Angeles, but he conceived of his burrito with what what he calls a "slow fast food" approach.
After studying culinary arts and working as head chef at Tierra Sur in Oxnard, California, Aarons moved to Israel. His attention to detail for crafting the menu went down to picking the types of rice and chiles that make him tick. Many of the core ingredients are made in-house: pastrami, cooked sous-vide then smoked over ten days; corn tortillas for tacos and spelt ones for burritos; butter pickles and kimchi.
Aarons and Tzvi Maller, a fellow owner and SoCal native, drew from the Korean and Mexican cuisines they grew up with in LA, and blended that with American classics like burgers and pastrami, to build a completely innovative menu.
"I grew up on Mexican food—treif Mexican food. Real, authentic, East LA shit," said Maller, who now lives an observant Jewish lifestyle but speaks of fish tacos in Baja's San Felipe with religious rapture. East LA and Mexican eateries, he said, inspired the slow-cooked turkey carnitas and tempura-battered cod in corn tortillas dished out at Crave.
At the same time, Aarons is pushing the envelope. "Israelis go to South America and Asia, they come back and they try to bring the purest food back," he said. "For us, it's not so purist. We're bringing American-Mexican-Korean, West Coast, LA style food here."
While Crave grills up a slice of Americana in the Middle East, it remains to be seen whether its approach to food service wages will take off in Israel, or make its way back to the US.