In the heart of the Kings Highway section of Brooklyn, a small two-table cafe is squeezed between apartment buildings, humming bakeries, and lively upscale restaurants. Think Sweet Café, almost hidden from plain sight, is an intimate jumble of Israeli culture. Middle Eastern music is played, laughter is heard, and walls are lined with Hebrew axioms, flags, and pictures. It is a place where nobody seems to be in a rush and where customers linger as they socialize and happily wait for the shop's charismatic and vibrant owner to whip up his newest concoction.
"The number one secret to this man's success," customer Morris Harary praised, "Is his smile. We're greeted with a smile, the food is prepared with a smile, and served with a smile."
Moti Rabinowitz, the animated owner of Think Sweet Café, has been in business for over 25 years, outlasting statistics that show that on this particular street of Kings Highway, more than 95 percent of independently run restaurants have closed within the first year, while remaining restaurants have an average five-year life span. It is remarkable to see that in such a tremendously competitive and transient environment, one with high rents and strict landlords, Moti and his wife Debbie have turned this small cafe into a community landmark.
"The secret to staying alive in this industry," Rabinowitz declared, "Is making good, simple food, and serving the people exactly how they want it."
Every resident shouts, "Hey Moti!" as they jam into the small store, eager to taste Moti's signature 'Mefuneket' sandwich. Indeed, the community icon has taken customer relations to a completely new level, greeting each customer as an honored guest in his own home.
"We're not like other restaurants or businesses, where the customer comes in, pays money, and leaves." Moti said, "We get to know each customer on a personal level. We know him, his wife, and his kids. We make the sandwich the way he likes it."
Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, Moti moved to Brooklyn as a young child and has lived there for nearly 40 years. In 1988, he decided to open up Think Sweet. However at the time, instead of hearty sandwiches, Moti served up mountains of candy and chocolates to local kids. It was 13 years later when he decided to make a change, and it all started with one sandwich.
After tinkering with recipes, Moti finally invented the 'Mefuneket,' a sub with tomatoes, peppers, olives, avocado, and eggs, all piled high on a sesame bun, toasted and slathered with homemade cream cheeses and sauce. Mefuneket, which literally means, "spoiled little girl" in Hebrew, was a turning point for Think Sweet. Almost immediately, through word of mouth, local residents flocked to the café to try the unique taste of his creation. The sandwich, Moti estimates, has brought in about 98 percent of all sales.
For many years, Moti's customers consisted of 85 percent Israelis. Today, he has well known adages written in Arabic hung up to cater to the 90 percent of customers that are from the local Sephardic Jewish community.
Rabinowitz admits that he "very rarely" gets new customers, but the incredibly loyal ones that he services continue to come on a daily basis. Moti starts each day with phone calls from his 'regulars,' who ask him about his health while he assures them that their daily order will be made. The moment he picks up the phone, Moti recognizes the customer by voice and begins making his usual order, to be ready when they arrive.
A trip to the store can be an unusual experience for a first time customer. People cram and stack up onto one another, as each patiently waits for Moti to carefully and deliberately construct each Mefuneket, with each vegetable in its rightful place. There is never seating space, no menus, and wait times for food would have any other store's customers storming away in frustration. Yet not here. Somehow no one seems to mind; they enjoy every moment, as Moti calmly smiles and adeptly orchestrates the chaotic scene from behind the counter.
"People don't want to just pay food and leave." Moti conveyed, "They want to pay for the atmosphere. You come, sit here for an hour, and enjoy yourself. That's worth more than money."
As for the décor, Moti perks up, looking around fondly at his store: an unkempt hodgepodge of multicultural creativity. As nearly all of his customers are affiliated with Israel, he tries as hard as possible to remind them of the quaint shops and cafes that line Israel's main streets.
"A person who puts $150,000 into a store," Moti says, "I call them an idiot. People don't come to a store to be impressed by walls or floors or ceilings. People want good food and good service."
Indeed, people around this part of Brooklyn will continue to congregate in this unique establishment. It is a place where time seems to freeze, and all outside stress can melt away with a cold drink, a friendly face to talk to, and a delicious Mefuneket made by the one and only Moti.
"You know what keeps bringing people back?" Asked Moti, "When they come to me, they are family. When they come to me they feel at home. This is home."