An Indian woman restaurateur whom Israelis love


JERUSALEM: When the sari-clad Reena Pushkarna walks down the streets of Israel, people often accost her with a smile and say "mitzvah", or good deed.

That's because many are grateful to the Israeli Indian restaurateur for giving them jobs - and hope - at a time of distress.

"If by holding on to my business I can also help other people alleviate their own troubles, that makes me happy," Pushkarna said.

As hundreds of Israeli small businesses fold under, she is creatively fighting back recession with competitive prices and a new oriental food packing plant.

The plant is situated in Beit She'an, a struggling town of 18,000 residents just south of the Sea of Galilee and where it will help alleviate chronic unemployment.

About 700 people are currently jobless, constituting some eight percent of the town's 12,000-strong workforce.

Pushkarna's Israel-wide chain of six Indian restaurants has suffered a 20-30 percent loss of income in the last three years due to Israel's armed conflict with the Palestinians and the virtual cessation of international tourism to the country.

But being a family-oriented business charging medium range prices, none of her restaurants has closed down. "It is a battle to survive," she said.

Until recently, most of Pushkarna's staff were Indian nationals on 12-month Israeli work permits. But because of increasingly restrictive interior ministry licensing, police arrests and forced repatriation of illegal guest labourers, she now employs mostly local Israeli staff, retaining only her Indian chefs.

Pushkarna now also regularly employs 12 security guards outside her restaurants "because of the security situation".

"Nobody will dare to come in otherwise, and this is obviously an additional carrying cost," she said.

In recent weeks, since the unilateral Palestinian 'Hudna' or Islamic ceasefire, domestic and some international tourism has shown an upturn to Eilat on the Red Sea.

Pushkarna's two restaurants at the Las Vegas-style vacation resort there have only partially benefited from the influx of vacationers.

"It's hard to compete with the fabulous deals offered to them at top luxury hotels," she explained.

"So if I can't beat them, I must join them. Indian fare now tops the list of ethnic cuisines in Israel and Israelis demand it," she said, referring to a recent survey of Israeli dining out habits.

With typical ingenuity, Pushkarna has arranged exclusive Indian menu nights at various Eilat hotel dining rooms on different nights of the week where her staff serves dishes prepared in her own restaurant kitchens in the city.

"I am a Jew and I originally came to Israel to be part of the Jewish people in this country. I have sunk all my family's money and 20 years of our life here. I just can't give up and leave. I must go on," said Pushkarna.

Named PRSKV, an acronym stringing the first letter of the name of each member of Pushkarna's family, her new oriental food packing plant will prepare individually packaged, precooked, oriental meals -- Indian, Japanese, Chinese and Thai.

The plant will produce and distribute in local and overseas markets through Supersol, a major Israeli supermarket chain.

Pushkarna already has a successful two-year distribution agreement with Supersol, marketing four varieties of packaged Indian pre-cooked food under her trade name Reena's Fresh and Ethnic Indian Kitchen. All one needs to do is put the packet in the microwave, heat, tear open and eat.

The plant is located in premises being renovated at a cost of $1.5 million in Beit She'an. Set to launch in early 2004, PRSKV will provide work to 150 women, many of them unemployed single mothers.

Israel has some 310,000 unemployed, close to 12 percent of the national workforce, mostly laid off by global economic trends, the country's difficult security situation, a mounting deficit budget, low consumer spending and rising high overhead costs that have guillotined uncompetitive industries, forcing closures, public service cost-efficiency dismissals and mass layoffs.

But, says Pushkarna: "I am an incorrigible optimist. I am determined to pull through and I still have my hope, in spite of the current economic and security situation."