Europe goes bananas over an Israeli’s avocados


AMSTERDAM — Last year, Ron Simpson was still managing talent for a living.

But within a few months, Simpson, a 34-year-old Jewish marketing professional with no restaurant experience, launched an international chain of eateries so wildly popular that seasoned critics are celebrating it as a cultural symbol.

As it turns out, all Simpson and partner Julien Zaal needed to take the Dutch capital’s restaurant sector by storm was a small space, a good concept and an Instagram account.

Oh, and avocados. About 10,000 a week, to be exact.

Each item on the menu at The Avocado Show is based on the fruit. In addition to avocado salads, pancakes, egg dishes and smoothies, there’s an avocado burger, the meat sandwiched between two peeled halves sprinkled with sesame. The cocktail department features Guaca Mary and Avo Daiquiri. And for dessert, you can have ice cream, mousse and waffle (take a wild guess as to the flavors).

At about noon each day, dozens of patrons — many, but not all, millennials — queue up at the entrance to The Avocado Show’s main restaurant near the bustling Albert Cuyp market in south central Amsterdam to wait for a table.

There are only 50 seats, including a bright pink velvet couch. Large plants and shiny tables balance out the concrete walls.

Despite the humble setting, The Avocado Show generated a media frenzy in Holland and beyond. It was featured in hundreds of mainstream newspapers in places as far-flung as New Zealand. Its success stunned observers of the local restaurant sector.

“Had someone told me last year that he’s opening a restaurant based on avocado, I would have declared him insane,” Mac van Dinther, food critic of the highbrow Volkskrant daily, told JTA. “Maybe that’s part of the reason for The Avocado Show’s success: It makes people curious.”

The drab decor sharpens the focus on the dishes. Some feature elaborate flower-shaped structures made of thin avocado slices and bright purple beet strips. In others, layered avocado rectangles form elaborate patterns to hedge seaweed and salmon salads.

“This is why we call ourselves The Avocado Show,” Simpson told JTA. “The show is on your plate.”

Booker Jennings, a recent high school graduate from Denver, Colorado, said his avocado pancakes were the healthiest he’s ever had and “not something you can get at home.” His friend, Mark Gardner, said the lean bacon at The Avocado Show “is so fresh, so good. The best I’ve had.”

Not everyone is as positive. Van Dinther said that “from a culinary perspective, The Avocado Show has little to offer. It’s basically pieces of avocado with something on the side.” He gave the place 6 points out of 10, “which is not really a recommendation.”

Simpson said the dishes’ aesthetic is more than a gimmick — it is an integral element of their marketing strategy.

“You give people a spectacular dish, they’re going to take a picture of it and probably share it on Instagram. If it looks good, their friends will come, too,” he said. “That’s basically our advertising strategy in a nutshell.”

The Avocado Show’s success “is a direct result of social media,” Simpson said. The chain has more than 100,000 followers on Instagram and 63,000 on Facebook — a formidable following in European terms. The established EXKi chain of 70 health food restaurants has just over 7,000 followers on Instagram and 43,000 on Facebook.

Simpson, a native of Petach Tikvah, is the son of a British father and an Israeli mother. He moved to Holland at age 4 when his dad took a job with AT&T. Most of his friends ended up “very successful, very famous or both,” but for many years he was “kind of figuring out what to do,” working as a journalist and talent agent as well as a barista, waiter “and just about any job you can imagine.”

Being Jewish, Simpson said, “meant that my friends would make fun of how, of course, I’m going to become some famous producer or businessman because there’s this stigma that Jews are good with money, right?”

And while the expectations placed some pressure on him, he said “it also gave me a sort of confidence, I think that, yeah, sure, I can make it in business if I wanted. All I had to do was start.”

From social media, The Avocado Show began making a splash in mainstream media across Europe and beyond and was featured on Netherlands TV.

While it may have been the world’s first all-avocado restaurant, Simpson’s chain is no longer the only one. A month after the opening in Amsterdam, Avocaderia came to Brooklyn — and another location opened this spring in Manhattan.

Millennials’ passion for avocados was mocked, and celebrated, last year when an Australian millionaire, Tim Gurner, told an interviewer that young people would be in better financial shape if they spent less money on indulgences like avocado toast.

Simpson said he was moved by instinct, not trend. He and Zaal were talking about opening a restaurant and each made a list of favorite foods.

“Avocado was on both lists, so we went with that,” Simpson said. “Then we announced it on Facebook and it just took off from there at a speed that, frankly, none of us were prepared for.”

Six months after opening their first restaurant in March 2017, the partners found an investor in Shawn Harris, founder of the leading European exotic fruit and vegetable importer Nature’s Pride. She fronted The Avocado Show $5.7 million, allowing it to open in Brussels and in other cities soon.

Israel, which provides The Avocado Show with some of its fruits, is high on the chain’s shortlist, Simpson told the Volkskrant daily in September. But in the immediate future, it will focus on European destinations.

“To me,” he said, “it’s a story about two guys who wanted to do something they love and just didn’t spend too much time wondering if it’s actually a good idea.”