Miriam, a popular brunch spot in Park Slope Brooklyn, has served one million eggs since it opened in 2005. The Mediterranean restaurant, known for its Arab-influenced Israeli foods like Shakshuka and Sabich eggplant sandwiches, frequently has lines out the door on the weekends. These days, gourmet Israeli cuisine is common in New York City, but owner Rafael Hasid, who immigrated from Israel in 2000, was one of the first to popularize it. Today, he is a successful restauranteur with three businesses, including a cocktail bar and a brand new Creole-themed restaurant in New York’s upscale Tribeca neighborhood. He employs 60 people across his properties and brings in annual revenues up to $6 million.
“Immigrants are hungrier to prove themselves,” Hasid says. “They’re starting a little behind, so they feel like they need to do extra to get where everybody else is. But I don’t think I’m special. There are a lot of Americans who own good food and beverage businesses.”
But the economic contributions of immigrants in Hasid’s congressional district are clear. As of 2014, he was one of 11,897 immigrant entrepreneurs New York’s Ninth Congressional District, a district with almost 12,000 foreign-born entrepreneurs. In the few blocks around Miriam, most of the restaurants are owned by immigrants. And all of them rely on immigrant labor to operate. Hasid estimates that about half of his workforce originally came from outside the United States.
“There are jobs that non-immigrants won’t agree to do. And it’s not about how much you pay,” he says. “Dishwashing, bussing tables. If didn’t have immigrants, I might need more machinery than people.” Hasid says that he likes to have his entry-level staff move up. “Somebody comes as a dishwasher, becomes a prep guy, a sauté guy, a waiter, a shift manager.” This allows his staff gain skills and eventually earn higher salaries. In so doing, they can invest more in their families and communities. In Hasid’s district, immigrants paid $2.6 billion in taxes in 2014 and wielded $6.3 billion in spending power.
Immigrants are hungrier to prove themselves. They’re starting a little behind, so they feel like they need to do extra to get where everybody else is.
As an entrepreneur, Hasid followed the same route as many of his staff. The son of a teacher and a bus driver in Israel, he first came here to study cooking at the French Culinary Institute. When his student visa expired, he traveled back and forth between Israel and the United States on a tourist visa while he worked in various kitchens around the city. He dreamed of opening his own restaurant, but that seemed impossible.
It’s not legal to start a business on a tourist visa, and U.S. immigration policy requires foreign entrepreneurs to invest up to $1 million in their business from the outset, if they hope to move here permanently. In the end, Hasid got lucky; he met an American who agreed to become his business partner. He also married an American and so was able to apply for citizenship.
In 2003, Hasid opened a café called Hill Diner in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, followed by Miriam, in 2005, a cocktail bar called Wolf and Deer, in 2010, and 1803, in 2017. He eventually sold Hill Diner as well as a wine bar that he’d opened in the West Village. In addition, Hasid has a side operation consulting for restaurants and hotels.
Hasid says good and bad people come from every country and from every culture; you can’t make blanket statements about large groups of people, be they Syrians or Israelis. “The president decided, ‘this country’s not good and that one’s not good.’ But the development of this country is based on immigration. You need to find a way that excludes the bad individuals, not the entire group,” he says. Part of the problem, he says, is that people are letting themselves be swayed by fear.
Hasid believes that immigration reform requires leaders who are willing to stand up to that fear. “A real leader doesn’t do what is popular,” he says. “He does what is right. Even Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, when he declared a state of Israel, was told that it was a mistake by most people.”
Hasid supports reform that welcomes refugees and asylum seekers, instead of demonizing them based on their religions or country of origin. He supports reform that makes it easier for entrepreneurs like himself to start businesses here. And he supports policies that embrace immigrants who are here and contributing instead of approaching them with fear.
“With immigrants, you see more languages, more types of food, more mentalities,” says Hasid. “My son goes to school with Bangladeshis, Japanese kids, Arabs. This will make him understand that there is more in the world than white Americans. It will make him able to understand different points of view and mindsets. The world is so small,” says Hasid, and kids today need that kind of exposure if they’re going to succeed professionally.