The Ignite Series is a monthly interview of an artist, creator, or community organizer whose passion has inspired us. In honor of its subject, we create a collectible piece of matchbox art for our subscribers.
Assaf and Naama Tamir are the brother-sister duo behind Lighthouse, a Williamsburg restaurant acclaimed for its singular devotion to quality, community and sustainability.
Lighthouse was a key element of our own origin story, as a role model for thoughtful business, as well as being the actual place (on Keap Street) where the idea of Keap came to be. Our founder Harry gave them a visit to hear more about their exciting vision for using business to make change.
Naama + Assaf Tamir (Photo: Kyle Ford)
Harry (HD): Can you tell our readers quickly how Lighthouse came to be?
Assaf (A) + Naama (N): We wanted to open a warm, friendly neighborhood restaurant that served clean, fresh food with a strong sense of community. We had been looking for a spot for a while and then stumbled upon this space that was across the street from where we lived. There was nothing like this around here, but I had plenty of friends living in the area who wanted a neighborhood spot like this—so it was a no-brainer to do it here.
HD: Did you have the idea of Lighthouse and Outpost being businesses with "multiple bottom lines" (Profit, People, Planet), before you started or has that evolved from being in business?
A: If anything it’s stronger now than it was before.
N: Yes, it was there from the beginning, but it definitely expanded over time when we realized all the opportunities to do better. There are more things that you realize are not done right, and there’s an opportunity to improve them, to shift things and be a changemaker.
And then it seemed natural to us to think about taking care of the environment and our community. The environment aspect manifests itself in many ways from energy practices, water practices, using as little plastic as possible, recycling, being very mindful about waste. And on the social side it’s about treating our employees like they are humans first of all: through fair wages and abiding by your principles—not just in the front of the house but also in the back. At the end of the day it comes down to leaving the world a better place than before you showed up.
Some of the delights available at Lighthouse.
N (continued): The idea behind Lighthouse, Outpost, and future things we will do, is to have a business that is making the world a better place, and to show that there is room in the world for businesses that are mindful of the environment and of humanity; we think that should be the new culture. If we want those places to exist and have a voice, then we need to be a part of the movement. The more we grow the more people hear about it and get to be a part of it, and the more it will amplify the message. We’ve managed to make our values viable, and I feel it’s proper to go to the next stage.
HD: So is that next stage helping other restaurateurs following the same principles?
N: We’re already an open source resource for other businesses who hit us up for advice all the time—and we’re part of a research group, we’re the co-founders of this platform called No Free LuncheM, and it’s essentially two things: a platform for businesses that want to be sustainable, to share ideas and solutions; and also eventually a consumer-facing platform to build on the fact that people have power through their wallets. It’s about educating people, getting them excited, and promoting the notion that you are powerful in the world when you buy something—and change the culture in consumerism from seeking things that are “cool” or the cheapest to something that deserves to be in the world.
Grilled Escarole + Tahini.
A: We want to spread this gospel: of good food, responsible sourcing, responsible waste management, fair wages, without the city enforcing minimum wages. This is a way of spreading that message from a metaphorical Lighthouse.
HD: I remember you recommending Cradle to Cradle a while back, which I read (Naama and Assaf both laugh and point at a copy of the book on the shelf)... Oh it’s right there. I was going to say, it sounds like you’re embodying the Cradle to Cradle philosophy.
N: I call it my gospel. Reading that book was very transformative, because I always cared about all these things, but that “hippy” version of it was never that appealing to me. It felt like if you wanted to be sustainable, you had to go back in time; whereas I find this approach so refreshing and future-facing. It’s talking about sustainability in this new, exciting, innovative way. It’s not about how you have to give up everything and be a minimalist, “do less” and “take less”. It’s saying “No, let’s rethink it. Let’s celebrate life and figure out ways where our emissions are positive and our actions are positive, and we don’t have to punish ourselves”. That is amazing. The last thing you ever want to do is guilt someone.
Circular manufacturing cycles—where products are designed to recycle into future production (From Cradle to Cradle, by Michael Braungart and William McDonough)
“[It’s] the realization that we have a business that is making the world a better place, and that there is room in the world for businesses that are mindful of the environment and of humanity; we think that should be the new culture.”
HD: One thing we noticed when we started really thinking about our impact on the environment with our carbon footprint, packaging... as a small business you assume there’s a lot of big money out there trying to solve these issues, and when you dig into you think “Nope, no one is trying to solve this. We are literally the first people to try and solve this problem—which could have a huge impact. How are we—the tiny guys—the people trying to address this?”
N: For sure.
HD: What are some things where you guys have felt that way?
A: We do still feel that way!
N: Waste is the big one. It’s crazy that we are still processing waste in this archaic way. Why are styrofoam and plastic still around? Why are we schlepping garbage to faraway places to put it in landfills?
HD: You have been putting in a lot of effort to do better on the topic of waste. Can you tell us more about that?
A: The first step is to observe what we do.
Then we need to figure out how we can separate and sift through our waste in-house. So we started separating organic, paper, plastic, glass, etc. That was the first thing and it was difficult to train or re-train kitchen staff to separate their waste. They’re not used to it—NYC restaurant culture just doesn’t teach you that. And for them to take compostable garbage and to understand which one goes to which bag, that meat and fish waste doesn’t go into the same bin as vegetable waste, and so on… it was work for sure.
“We want sustainability to be celebratory, generous and less 'punishing'”
Now I’m pushing all my friends who work in other bars and restaurants to do that work too—to separate the beer bottles from their liquor bottles, cans and wine bottles, and all the organic waste from the fruits.
Our corks are now kept and recycled through for the Cork Upcycle Collective, oyster shells are separated for a different program. Once you stop thinking of it as “garbage”, and start thinking of it as compost, as re-usable, your mindset changes. Glass and aluminum can be re-used multiple times, if not endlessly. At the end we’re really left with about 20% garbage when we used to have 100%. Everything has been separated in-house. So it’s a little more laborious, and in some ways we’re paying for it: we have a space downstairs where we store our oyster shells, we have another container for other things.
Oyster shells ready to become compost
HD: Doing that does indeed carry a financial cost.
A: Yes, for sure. There’s no incentive from any kind of government, small or big, to do that yet. But we’re working on that. Because if we can prove that this is actually effective and we get other restaurants and businesses to do the same, then we will be able to spread that philosophy out and make change happen.
HD: In terms of small businesses getting together and doing it themselves, are there any bigger movements out there that you feel excited about?
N: Yes, I look with great hope at this new version of capitalism that is emerging from this political awakening, from composting businesses to great candle companies. People are understanding that it is on us, and that the more we educate ourselves and the more we understand our impact and talk to our friends, the faster we’ll make things happen.
If big companies understand that without fair practices no one is going to buy their products, then they’ll change—and that’s the kind of world I’m excited to live in.
“We would love to see the culture around consumerism change. We should be buying products we love from companies we appreciate, rather than the cheapest version or a branded product.”
I really love the people that come in here because for the most part they really get it; they’re here for all the right reasons: because it’s delicious, because it’s kind, because they love us, because they know what they’re doing. And I want to see consumers getting smart and getting excited. I think when you tell the story and you get connected to something it’s such a powerful thing, and all of a sudden from a simple transaction you feel really connected to something you just bought, whether it was an experience or a candle or a wallet someone made for you. On all levels it fits who we are as humans.
HD: Going back to when you started Lighthouse, thinking about the experience as a customer, and this beautiful space: how did you go about the design direction here?
N: It’s all my brother! (laughs)
A: Yes (smiles). All the elements of design that I ended up using have roots that go way back for me. The central idea behind the way we cook, the way we do everything, is to bring it back to basics. And that includes the design. For me, going back to basics happened through three major styles. One is Bauhaus—very basic shapes. Since the building and space were already triangular, it was a good starting point from which to work.
Lighthouse in progress (Assaf left)
A (continued): The second influence is nautical design—boats and marina vessels—where shapes are streamlined, no sharp angles and no extra decorations: they take space, they take room, you want to be as precise as you can with the use of space.
The third influence is the American Shakers, which are a sect of Christianity that started here in the 1700s, and part of their beliefs is that extra design and “superfluous details” are the work of the devil. They believe ornamental features are arrogant, self-serving, and not serving God. Beauty, according to the Shakers, is in functionality. So when you look at American Shakers furniture, it looks much like regular cabinets, where everything has a purpose, much like in Bauhaus and the nautical design world. So I blended all these elements together and somehow it works really well.
Another thing most people don’t know is that the feeling is the function, that movement in the space is really crucial. The bar has a dynamic movement forward where the tables are like waves in the ocean. So that nautical idea in the abstract is translated to the space, with of course the big windows; the lights all have to play each other, combining elements of Bauhaus, nautical, and Shaker at the same time.
HD: How did you first get interested in that nautical theme?
A: I grew up literally 10 kilometers (editor’s note: 6.2 miles for the imperials out there) from the Mediterranean sea, so I was already surrounded and fascinated by nautical stuff. My friend and I had a little catamaran boat that we would take out, and go fishing and surfing in Palmachim Beach (editor’s note: a beach town in Israel, close to Tel Aviv). That was pretty much one of my favorite places to go.
When I was old enough to get a motorcycle cycle, we would go over there in the morning and I would go surfing and she would jog on the beach— just five minutes away from our house. I really miss it a lot. On one of the Lighthouse postcards there’s a picture of us right on the cliff, with the fence in the back. In this one, my mom was a skipper of a tugboat in Jaffa.
The Tamirs’ mother, as seen on that postcard
A (continued): For the Shakers style, I learned about that in my mid-twenties: I stumbled upon a book and I found the simplicity of the design really appealing and the philosophy behind them very interesting.
HD: Do you still have that book?
A: I have six or seven of them (laughs). And Bauhaus, the school/philosophy behind it has a historical connection somehow to Tel-Aviv and Jews in general, because it was a leftist, liberal movement in Germany before of course the nazis came about. Israel was formed in those years after the war and Bauhaus was then the new architectural style of the future.
Presenting the next addition to your coffee table book collection
HD: Do you still feel the remnants of that style in Tel-Aviv?
A: Oh yeah, it’s everywhere. They’re preserved there, it’s landmarked. And they’re beautiful buildings.. like this one (shows postcard).
An example of Tel Aviv Bauhaus architecture (Credit: Dezeen)
HD: It’s very “Lighthouse” actually!
A: (laughs) So I grew up with all these things and found a way to weave them into my design.
HD: Cool! I expected that there would be a lot of thought behind it but didn’t expect it to get quite some much closure about why my favorite restaurant looks the way it does.
A: (laughs) Oh I forgot one thing that’s very important! The Golden Ratio, the Fibonacci sequence. In the ratio of these windows and walls, in the bar’s curve, and every single part of the architecture and design here is made with thought to its relationship to neighboring elements. Of course the golden rule manifests itself everywhere in the natural world—when we are surrounded by things that are communicating that, we subconsciously feel comfortable without totally comprehending what is doing that. So we took the golden rule into account when designing the space, so that the flow feels harmonious.
HD: Let’s close things out with smell. If you had to describe the smell of Lighthouse…
N: Hmm… Woods and savory, I would say.
A: Yes, I see woods, forest-y stuff, cedar.
HD: Do you remember the first time you smelled those two things?
N: Hmm… Woods and savory, I would say.
Homemade labne + sourdough bread
A (continued): Yes, I see woods, forest-y stuff, cedar.
N: Like your Wood Cabin candle! (laughs)
A: Wood Cabin is one of my favorites for sure.
N: I like Hot Springs the best.
A: In the summer you had an ocean one, right?
HD: Waves! I hadn’t quite connected the dots back then with the nautical theme but now it makes sense to me how that could be part of the scent tapestry here.
A: And home cooking is something I associate with this place—I come here and I know with my nose exactly what they’re cooking.
HD: Alright, I’ll let you go back to taking care of your guests. Thank you!