The Berkeley Flying Falafel crew
The Berkeley Flying Falafel crew

Flying Falafel spreads wings into East Bay — and beyond?

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

If Assaf Pashut’s vision becomes reality, he will someday be the entrepreneur behind the first national vegan fast-food chain — make that the first kosher national vegan fast-food chain.

For now, though, the San Francisco resident is busy running two locations of the Flying Falafel — the original in San Francisco, the second in Berkeley — and possibly will add a third if he can find a suitable East Bay location.

Pashut is a bit of a ham who has been known to wear a Superman outfit to his own openings, or an “Official Baller” T-shirt. And the business is named such because the crew often throws the falafel balls into the air, catching them in the open pita, before serving.

Flying Falafel owner Assaf Pashut dresses up as Superman at a Flying Falafel event.
Flying Falafel owner Assaf Pashut dresses up as Superman at a Flying Falafel event.

The entire menu is vegan, so no ice cream in the banana shakes and no cheese in the cheesecake. The freshly baked pita comes from the Palestinian-owned wholesale Hamati Bakery in San Bruno. (Pashut, who has been studying Arabic, uses it in his dealings with the bakery family and says he has an excellent relationship with them.)

Pashut, 34, was born in Israel, and his family immigrated to the South Bay when he was 11. After high school, he returned to Israel for a few years. While there, a vegan girlfriend showed him an undercover video taken at a factory farm, and it deeply upset him.

“I was shocked and devastated,” he said. “I didn’t know the meat industry could be so cruel. [Veganism] slowly became a passion.”

Pashut entered UC Berkeley as a neuroscience major upon his return, and for a time was active with the animal liberation group Direct Action Everywhere. The group later gained notoriety when it picketed Urban Adamah for slaughtering chickens and protested with graphic displays outside Berkeley’s Local Butcher Shop.

Pashut found that he sometimes couldn’t sleep, thinking about all of the animals being killed for food. “Emotionally speaking, it was tough,” he said, and he struggled to educate people about the evils of factory farming. “It’s really hard to convince people to care about any other group other than themselves.”

Falafel and fries from Flying Falafel
Falafel and fries from Flying Falafel

Feeding people something that was naturally vegan would be a more effective to get them to reduce their meat consumption, he reasoned. And when he considered his list of favorite foods in that category, falafel was right up there.

Thus the first incarnation of the Flying Falafel was born in his senior year on the Berkeley campus, where he’d get up at the crack of dawn to cut up cucumbers and other sides, set up his booth and do brisk sales on “Falafel Fridays.” (Despite UC Berkeley’s reputation as a bastion of anti-Israel activity, he said he never had any issues as an Israeli American student selling falafel on campus.)

It became such a passion that he thought about opening a restaurant right after graduating in 2007. In hindsight, he says, he’s glad he didn’t. “I would have failed for sure.”

His next conquest was farmers markets. He was so eager that at one point he had more than 40 market applications in process. Luckily, rationality prevailed and he scaled back to just a few. He went on to do events and cater at tech companies.

Pashut thought he had laid to rest the idea of opening a restaurant until a few years ago, when he was in an unnamed local falafel joint and was told he’d be charged another dollar for extra cucumber.

“That lit a fire under my ass,” he said. “I remember thinking to myself ‘I’m going to open a falafel shop and kick your butt.’ ”

Pashut launched his San Francisco store four years ago at 1051 Market St. and last year opened in downtown Berkeley (2114 Shattuck Ave.).

And, no surprise, customers will not be charged for extra cucumber.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."