Expat bringing Israeli food to St. Louis


Orly David Peters. Photo By Bill Motchan.

Bill Motchan, Special To The Jewish Light

The aroma of sesame seed-coated schnitzel fills the kitchen along with pungent Hungarian sweet paprika and savory za’atar. On the dining room table is a bowl of labneh (Lebanese cheese), a dish of tangy Galil brand pickles, a plate of piping-hot bourekas (mushroom-filled popovers) and a chopped cucumber salad. This is a typical Israeli lunch. But the bakery bag bearing the Schnucks logo is the giveaway: We are in Chesterfield, not Tel Aviv. 

Welcome to the suburban home and kitchen of Orly David Peters who has lived in St. Louis with her husband, Nir, and their three children since 2015. They arrived here from Israel, not knowing much about the language and culture of the Midwest. The differences were especially pronounced with food.

Orly David Peters.

“When we came here seven and a half years ago, we struggled a lot,” said Peters, 49. “The kids were little, but they were big enough to remember their lives in Israel so the adjustment was a big struggle, especially for food. We had to beg our kids to go to restaurants and try different foods, and they didn’t want to come with us. They only wanted traditional food that we used to make in Israel, my mom’s recipes like the soup we had in Israel. But nothing tasted the same here.”

St. Louis delicacies such as toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake and frozen custard weren’t quite what the Peters family craved. Even something as simple as rice proved challenging. Lia Peters was 9 years old when the family came here. She was always a picky eater but, after the move, she couldn’t find much of anything she liked other than corn and rice.

“A few weeks after we got here, we received a shipment from Israel with some of the food products that had been stored in our pantry there,” Peters said. “There was a package of a Sogat Persian Rice. Lia claimed that this was the ‘real rice,’ the rice that has the taste of home. So my mother started sending us care packages filled with Sogat rice and other Israeli products that I couldn’t find in St. Louis.”

It wasn’t just Lia who had a difficult food transition. The family missed Israeli bread and Israeli couscous. Spices proved elusive. Hungarian sweet paprika, Peters said, tastes entirely different than the paprika found at Schnucks.

Peters practiced law in Israel. But she would have had to go back to school for additional courses to pass the bar here. She was more concerned about making sure her children were happy, which led to developing her skills and her real passion: cooking. Peters refined favorite dishes and became something of a food detective. Now she knows which stores have the ingredients required to cook Israeli recipes.

Orly David Peters. Photo By Bill Motchan.

Grocery shopping became something of a scavenger hunt for Peters. She knows exactly what’s available in the kosher food section at Walmart, Dierbergs and Whole Foods. Another regular stop is the Global Food Market in Kirkwood, which offers a vast supply of food popular around the world.

“Thankfully, food is my passion,” Peters said. “I like to cook, and I was good at it. I was really happy to see the satisfaction in my family’s faces, and their friends started to like my food, and of course my husband and our friends. Over time, it became more fun, and I got adjusted to it. This is our life, but every time I travel to Israel, I come back with a suitcase full of products.”

A taste of home

Early last year, Peters had a brainstorm. Why not make food transition easier for other expats. She is developing an online community called “Habuyta: A Bite of Home”.  Habuyta is a Hebrew word that doesn’t really have an English equivalent but means roughly “home sweet home.”

“I always had the passion for food, and if I have a problem, I have to solve it,” Peters said. “That’s how I’ve always been in my life. I don’t like to ignore a problem. I told myself it doesn’t make any sense that we can’t solve this.”

In a stretch class at the Jewish Community Center, Peters started chatting with a woman named Maria Rivera Ripoll, who turned out to be a certified life coach. They began working together to define Peters’ vision and figure out how to make Habuyta a reality. 

Peters learned the ins and outs of creating a startup. Fortunately, St. Louis has an ecosystem favorable to technology entrepreneurs in the Cortex central corridor of the Central West End. Peters also began forming connections. Ripoll introduced Peters to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which helped her find the BALSA Foundation.

“These are programs that provide resources and capital,” Peters said. “I won a grant, it’s not big, only $1,000, from BALSA, but they also introduced me to mentors. As a mentee, they also helped me network and apply for other grants and incubators. I have two mentors from SCORE, Richard Goldberg and Dick Slackman. I graduated in November from the bootcamp and was chosen as the most promising business to continue with my mentor, Michael Keho, for six months of one-on-one sessions. They are providing funding, mentorship, and professional advisors. It has been a huge help.

As she began planning Habuyta, Peters met veteran entrepreneur and mentor Steve Epner through the SLU I-Corp program. Epner has written nine books on the topic and teaches corporate entrepreneurship and innovation at St. Louis University. Epner, who attends Congregation Shaare Emeth, said he helped guide Peters through the discovery and research process.

“We suggest that startup entrepreneurs go out and interview people who may be potential customers, and ask them open-ended questions,” said Epner, 71. “One of the things Orly would do was talk to people. If she could tell by their accent they were from somewhere else, she said, ‘What do you miss from home?’ without leading them immediately to food or cooking.”

Peters asked the question of random shoppers at Global Food Market. Sure enough, many replied that it was the food they associated with their home city, region or country. Epner said the timing of Peters’ decision to create her own startup early last year may well be related to a post-COVID return to normalcy.

“Sometimes, it takes a trigger event to make entrepreneurs bring their dream to the forefront and decide to start working on it,” he said. “COVID was a trigger event for many people that got them to take the dreams that have been sitting in the back of their heads for years and say, ‘Why not now?’ ”

Peters’ primary goal with Habuyta is to help transplants stay connected when they come from far way. It’s not just Israelis or other international expats.

“Even Americans who move from state to state could benefit,” she said. “I learned when I did customer discovery that people who move from another part of the country miss the food from home. They say pizza from New Jersey isn’t the same as it is here. That’s true for New York bagels or barbecue from Texas. It’s not just an Israeli problem.”

A platform to share their food 

The other key element of Habuyta is to provide opportunities for home cooks with a platform to share their food. Shelly Yona is excited about that portion of the online community. She is a talented baker who sells her homemade babka, challah and sufganiyot through Habuyta though her customer base comes largely from word-of-mouth and through via facebook.com/syona2.

Yona, 51, an Israeli transplant, is a fitness instructor at the J. Originally from Tel Aviv, she arrived in St. Louis in 2001 after a long distance courtship with her future husband, Moshe, also Israeli. 

Moshe Yona has lived in the United States for 26 years, moved to St. Louis from New York to open his own moving company and now is in the diamond business. He is a food lover and an accomplished cook. His specialty is known among the west St. Louis County Israeli community simply as Moshe’s Salad. It’s a variation of the chopped Israeli salad (chopped cucumber, tomatoes, and red, green and yellow peppers) that Peters prepares for her family.

Asked about the biggest difference between Israeli and American food, Yona said Israelis lean toward a Mediterranean diet, consisting of largely of plant-based foods, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. Herbs and spices add flavor, and olive oil is the main source of fat.

Israeli cooking also displays subtle nuances. Shelly Yona favors finely ground unsweetened coconut rather than the sweet, sticky variety usually found in grocery store baking goods aisle. Unable to find it at larger grocery stores, Yona discovered a reliable source at a smaller specialty store, Mideast Market at 14345 Manchester Road.

“When I go there, I feel like a kid in a candy store,” she said. 

Shelly Yona

Sure enough, during a recent visit, Yona was so excited to find golf ball-size eggplant and tiny okra, she grabbed a few items before remembering to get a shopping cart. She immediately began thinking about what she could cook for Moshe and her two teenage daughters. Yona favors the dishes she remembers from Israel.

“We had stuffed peppers and stuffed vegetables,” she said. “Also chicken in the oven and a lot of fish. We had a wide variety of really good food. My grandfather loved seafood. My aunt and her husband own a very good seafood restaurant in Tel Aviv. I love stuffed zucchini. My grandmother used to make it especially for me.”

Yona is looking forward to Orly Peters’ Habuyta for both its tips on finding Israeli food and as a platform to market and sell her own cooking. Yona has developed into a baking expert and sells her baked goods to a number of hungry St. Louis customers.

“I love to bake,” she said. “I bake challah, sufganiyot and I do a great babka.”

Peters hopes Habuyta will provide a virtual community where cooks like Yona can broaden their market.

“Shelly bakes at home and sells her pastries and Jewish holiday treats from her Facebook business page,” Peters said. “She is an amazing baker!”