Kindness is key – in life and in business.
After years of professional cooking, catering, writing cookbooks and co-owning her namesake restaurant, Levana found herself confronting a far more formidable task.
Levana’s own husband Maurice had been diagnosed with cancer and during the difficult treatment and multiple hospitalizations, there were long stretches where food felt like the enemy to him. (Plus, he was severely constipated– a frequent side effect of chemotherapy and morphine treatment.)
The standard institutional meal replacement products that he was given in the hospital all had something in common: they were full of chemicals and sugar, plus they tasted chalky and unpleasant and caused further constipation. Maurice rejected each one in turn and soon reached a near-skeletal weight. Levana and her family were staring at the real possibility of Maurice dying of hunger in a house full of delicious food–despite the fact that his superstar medical team said he was doing extremely well with his treatments.
Instead of getting dejected, Levana seized her usual enthusiasm and “get it done” attitude and went to work. She summoned up her lifelong training as a food professional and pioneer in the food industry, and brought it to bear. A lifelong food professional doubling as a distraught wife and caretaker? “This is where the rubber meets the road!”, she said.
Levana tied on her apron, rolled up her sleeves and got to work. Her goal: replicate the nutritional value of artificial meal replacements, but with a big difference: she would include only natural pure simple familiar plant foods.
For almost a year she tinkered with ground grains, seeds, berries, vegetables, herbs and spices, using ingredients in endless permutations. She finally settled on five perfect blends, each with a balanced nutritional profile. Beloved husband Maurice was the tester. At first, she had to force him to eat—indeed for three of four months these blends were practically all he ate. Lo and behold he began to gain weight and strength, and even requested Levana’s “magic potion.”. Her grandchildren asked for it, too. As did friends, and relatives.
This is when Levana knew she wanted to make her special formulas available to the public. Her five recipes got fine-tuned and she consulted with cancer doctors and dietitians. Dr. Joe Regenstein of Cornell University came on board as a food scientist, ensuring that Levana™ Meal Replacement delivered on the complete nutrition promise, including food lab analysis of ingredients and FDA standards.
Where did the idea for Levana Meal Replacement come from?
My husband was diagnosed with multiple myeloma three years ago, and his treatment caused severe weight loss and loss of appetite. The meal replacements commonly dispensed at the hospital are made of mostly sugar, water and chemicals. Needless to say, we wanted nothing to do with that. I called on my lifelong professional food experience and headed into my kitchen, tinkering for countless hours with blends of ground, dried, all-natural ingredients. Pretty soon I had a blend that formed a meal with ideal numbers of calories, fat, fiber, carbs, vitamins and nutrients, but with no added sugar or synthetics at all. It was like striking gold: My husband regained his weight and strength, and was called “the gold standard” by his medical team. I knew if my blends could help my husband, they could help so many others, and this is how Levana Meal Replacement was born!
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I practice what many corporate types may refer to as an “artiste” routine. Every day is different for me, but I set specific work hours and split my time between meetings with my business partners, my supportive staff and work in the kitchen. I’m the anti-white-collar type: I do most of my work at home in laid-back clothing, but I do follow strict rules: healthy meals, no chatting with friends during work hours, long walks in the park and on the elliptical.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I try hard to chase away the ideas that crowd out the real, viable ideas. Since I am a totally hands-on type, I do the artisan thing: after it takes shape and gains speed in my mind’s eye, I roll up my sleeves and get to work in my kitchen. My kitchen is the hub, and the scene of innumerable food crimes!
What’s one trend that excites you?
I grew up without refrigeration, relying every day on the huge ice cube that would be delivered on a horse and buggy. So we preserved foods: pickled them, fermented them, preserved them, sun-dried them, you name it. As a result, we were super healthy and had enormous stores of probiotics in us, long before any of this talk was even a thing. As soon as home refrigeration became the norm, those methods were sadly all but abandoned, and we inherited a great plague: allergies.
Fast forward half a century, I am delighted to see this trend reemerge, everywhere, for keeps!
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I ask around me and look for mentoring.
I consult with the masters: they succeeded for a reason! I find a good consultation worth every minute and every penny, a great investment and a real inspiration.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Trust your talents and don’t try to ignore, or worse, thwart them. Even while you explore what you think is more advantageous (a prospective spouse, a location, a career), do not forget to revisit your first “love” in all areas: this is precisely where you might end up and be happy!
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?
They don’t yet, but they will soon!
That’s easy: Eat Fat, Get Thin! (This is also the title of the recently published groundbreaking book by Dr. Mark Hyman, a great guru of mine).
It sounds severely counter intuitive, but it is so true. The low-fat decade is the decade where people gained the most weight: the good fat and its great flavor were stripped and replaced with gums, sugar and more sugar. We sacrificed flavor and pleasure and got fat on empty and insipid calories. So my war cry is: Get the avocados, coconut, nuts and oils back in please!
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
It has to do with a certain generosity of spirit that will not be lost on anyone: promise a little less, and give a lot more. That little bit of unexpected “extravagance” leaves a good taste in people’s mouths, and a smile on their faces, making them feel doted on: trust me, they will be back!
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
I would definitely say, the personal touch. After all, many services offer what other services do, in one form of other, so what stands out is the personal kindness and attention to detail you showed someone, that they will remember. It may well be as simple as remembering a client’s name, a personal detail he shared or a food he enjoys. Showing a genuine interest in the people you serve is the key to gaining customer loyalty.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I hate to sound like a wise guy, but our failure as entrepreneurs ended up being our success, and gave us our good name. For many years, after my family and I had blazed the upscale kosher dining trail, it looked as if we were barking up the wrong tree and nobody was ready for our seemingly presumptuous, even preposterous, concept – upscale kosher dining? Next thing you know, the kosher food and wine industry exploded, and all because some health-conscious hippies (us!) had a vision.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
If you’re starting a new business, don’t manufacture another soda brand, or new color chocolate sprinkles, for goodness sake! Who needs it? Start something people need, something there’s too little of (beside love!): ways to get seniors to understand how to use computers and electronic devices more easily, with instructions that speak their language: you would be amazed at how useful and fulfilling this would be for them and for the public. There are so many seniors raring to remain productive and use their time with purpose. Plus, people live longer now: keep’em busy! Keep’ em happy!
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I recently surprised a Russian friend who was recovering from a serious illness: I schlepped to Queens (a big deal for this city mouse), picked up an authentic Georgian dinner for two, with all bells and whistles, and an hour later showed up at her door, breathless. I’ll never forget the smiles on her and her husband’s faces!
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
I use Google Calendar to keep track of all my appointments. I love that it automatically suggests events to add based on your inbox, and you can invite others via email.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Although I approach self-help books with great circumspection and some skepticism, I remember being very inspired, indeed humbled, by Thomas Stanley’s book The Millionaire Next Door. I thought, wow, this is precisely what the Torah teaches: the penny in the proverbial piggy bank every single day, in every single area: you will be astounded how much it amounts to, and how rich it makes you!
What is your favorite quote?
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle
Often referred to as the Jewish Julia Child, renowned kosher restauranteur and chef Levana Kirschenbaum has spent more than 30 years helping people eat healthier without sacrificing the things we love about food – richness, bold flavors and meals that satisfy cravings.
Here she talks about the following
- Staying the course, in pursuing your entrepreneurial goals and in everyday life. Don’t procrastinate and don’t be discouraged by dreams that seem impossible to achieve. The word impossible says I’m-possible!
- Kindness is key – in life and in business. Unexpected acts of kindness are always a good thing, and kindness to customers builds loyalty. People will remember you not for what you did but how you made them feel.
- Always be a student – surround yourself with like-minded, motivated professionals who you can learn from and keep an open-mind to changing times and trends.
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Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.