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    A Flight to Success for Jilla Berkman

    By John L. Seitz – Courier Managing Editor

          Beverly Hills holds many brave souls who fled for freedom from Iran’s revolution against the Shah. All have their stories. Jilla Berkman is one of them.
          The new Urth Caffe’ on South Beverly Drive—the loving product of Jilla and Shallom Berkman—attracts hundreds of patrons daily for a dose of twonderful organic coffees, teas, salads, sandwiches and desserts. The commitment to pure food is a story by itself, but how that came to be is even a better tale.
          This article is mainly Jilla’s story. She was born in a Kurdish enclave in northern Iran and moved to the big city, Tehran, at the age of three. As the daughter of two prominent, highly-respected physicians, she lived in the high style of that Persian metropolis. Shortly after earning a degree in public relations from Communications University there, two huge events were to hit her beloved homeland—the Iranian Revolution and the onset of the Iran-Iraq War. Like so many others, she saw the coming cataclysm and knew she could be one of its casualties. She sold her belongings and gambled the man she paid would actually would be true to his word and guide her on horseback over the narrow trails amid the high peaks on her journey northwest to Turkey—all at night to escape detection.
          They survived hail storms with mud up to her thighs and the disaster of her guide’s horse slipping in the dark and plunging down the mountainside. Finally reaching Turkey, she managed to get to Paris and remained there for a year before going to Vienna where a visa to the United States was arranged.
          Arriving in Los Angeles in 1981 with the fervent desire to make her own way, she first got a sales job at the now-defunct Broadway department store and shortly thereafter rose to assistant department manager. Five years later, Futronics, one of the first computer shopping marts, hired her to manage three of its outlets (Beverly Center, Westside Pavilion and Northridge Square). At Futronics, she met Shallom Berkman, the man who was to become her business partner and ultimately her husband. Both shared a bursting entrepreneurial spirit. Their first venture together in 1989 sold natural products to homes by mail order.
          Pure accident led to what became the commercial focus of their lives. On an airplane flight to a convention, Shallom was seated next to a young Bolivian graduate of the University of Michigan. The latter’s village had funded his education with the hope he would somehow return to save their dying economy. The village, high in the mountains, grew a rare form of coffee bean known for its wonderful aroma and low acid, but whose cultivation was expensive. The world was not yet paying extra for coffee. Shallom agreed to give it a try. Thus was born the organic coffee drinks that became the foundation for Urth Caffe’. Jilla and Shallom scraped together enough money to exhibit at the Whole Life Expo and EcoExpo at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Their booth turned out to be one of the most popular attractions of both shows. The next step was logical.
          Armed with the knowledge they might be onto something solid, the pair leased a tiny 350-sq. ft. storefront in Manhattan Beach and began to sell exotic coffee beans. Though there were no tables nor chairs, their few early-on customers demanded they begin selling drip coffee and cappuccino.
          “Working at our place from 5:30 a.m. to noon, in those days, we were lucky to do $30 to $60. In order to pay the rent, I even had to take a second fulltime job from noon to 9 p.m. at Robinson’s”, said Jilla, who soon became the #1 woman in sales of electronics for that entire chain.
          It wasn’t long before business at their small store grew by leaps and bounds and began to average 300 customers by 9 a.m. daily. Lines of surfer dudes, office workers and neighboring residents circled the block for a taste of the unique low-acid coffees imported from Bolivia and throughout the world. With Jilla attending chef’s school and Shallom finished with his study of coffee growing in Italy, the twosome decided to take the next big step. With the aid of a handful of family and friends (mostly customers from their Manhattan Beach effort), they opened the first Urth Caffe’ on Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood in 1994.
          “We had eight employees and $250 in the bank,” recounted Jilla. “I knew we were going to make it, never even had a single doubt, and put 110% effort into it just to make sure.”
          They started serving soups, salads, sandwiches, pastries, snacks and desserts in addition to the 25 organic coffees emanating from such locales as Peru, Mexico, Uganda, Indonesia, Italy, Guatemala and New Guinea. Each coffee has its own storyline and carries such way out monickers as the “Mountain Gorilla” and the “Manhattan Mudd”. And what a bonanza. Serving more than 3,000 customers daily, the Melrose Urth Caffe’ has become one of the favorite hangouts for “new” Hollywood whether it be Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, Meg Ryan, Steve Martin, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Sean Connery, Kirsten Dunst, Laurence Fishburne, Jake Gyllenhaal or dozens of others watching the world go by just about any hour of the day or night. A broad range of over 55 organic teas and their signature pastries and light meals round out the experience of Urth Caffe’.
          The faithful line up every day at Urth Caffe’ and even the critics have been won over. Los Angeles Magazine named it as the “#1 coffee restaurant in LA” and The New York Times calls it the “prime star-spotting location in Los Angeles.” A local daily wrote that theirs is “the best café latte in all LA.”
          The Berkmans, who married in 1995 and live in Beverly Hills with six year old daughter, Golda, virtually duplicated the effort in their South Beverly Drive café which opened in December 2003. They launched a third location several months ago on Main Street in Santa Monica. The three locations are served by their own 5,000-sq. ft. central commissary near Staples Center with 40 employees. All croissants are baked by 1 a.m. and pastries by 5 a.m. before being trucked out. They only hire full time employees and everyone starts at the dishwashing counter. But why coffee to base their emerging empire on?
          “We use the same philosophy as our coffees and teas with our food which has to be organic, pure and natural,” contends Shallom. “That’s why we bake our own line of pies, cakes and cheesecakes from scratch and keep adding new items all the time.”
          As for the future, she said: “We have no intention of becoming another Starbucks but will pick our spots carefully.” She looked away then added, “In 20 years, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have an Urth Caffe’ in every big city?”

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