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Israeli cafes take a bite out of the big apple

Posted By Jenny Hazan On September 25, 2006 @ 10:00 pm In | No Comments

The Max Brenner chocolate bar in Manhattan – We were confident that we would have a good response from New Yorkers, but this has been overwhelming.Move over Starbucks, there’s a new game in town – two of them, actually. In the last months, two of Israel’s most popular café chains: Aroma Espresso Bar and Max Brenner Chocolate, made simultaneous American debuts in Manhattan. Coffee and chocolate junkies across the island continue to sniff out the new stores, both of which have been packed, wall-to-wall, since they opened.

“The response to the new store has been amazing,” says Oded Brenner, the creative brain behind the ‘Max Brenner’ brand, probably the first ever American chocolate bar, located at 841 Broadway at 13th Street, just south of Union Square.

“Since we opened, there has been an endless stream of smiling patrons, expressing so much excitement about the place, and even asking for my autograph. It has been a very rewarding experience,” he told ISRAEL21c. “We were confident that we would have a good response from New Yorkers, but this has been overwhelming.”

Meanwhile, at 145 Greene Street at Houston Street, the location of Aroma’s flagship international store in Soho, vice president of marketing Noam Berman, reports similar findings: “It has been amazing to see that not just Israelis, but New Yorkers too, love Aroma.”

He says that if all goes as planned, Aroma intends to open more stores in New York, California, Toronto, and perhaps even in Europe. “For now, opening in New York has been an amazing accomplishment for us.”

While the Israeli chains have already succeeded to capture the tastes (and tummies) of New Yorkers, it was only in April 2003 that America’s premiere coffee concept Starbucks, was forced to pull all of its six cafes out of Israel due to a lack of popularity. The question is what makes the two Israeli brands have such universal appeal?

According to Berman, the popularity of both chains is attributable to the fact that they are unique concepts in the American landscape. Since 1994, when brothers Yariv and Sahar Sheffa opened the first Aroma Espresso Bar in Jerusalem, the brand has grown to encompass 74 franchises across Israel. Synonymous with ‘coffee house’ in Israel, Aroma’s concept is entirely new to the US market. “Our format is very different. It’s healthy, its fresh, and everything is made to order,” Berman told ISRAEL21c.

The 24-hour shop, which features different blends of quality beans for espressos, cappuccinos, and regular brewed coffee, as well as a wide array of sandwiches, salads, and snacks, bakes all of its bread on-site. Both the frozen dough and the beans are shipped from Israel to Manhattan, so as not to tinker with the chain’s recipe for success.

That’s not to say that the Manhattan location is a carbon copy of the Israeli chain. There have been a few menu changes to suit American taste buds: Although they have kept intact the restaurant’s famous ‘bourekas treat’ (a hardboiled egg, cheese, pickle, and tahini sandwich on a flaky pastry), Aroma has added onto the menu a BLT sandwich (made with turkey bacon), and changed the name of the ‘Iraqi sandwich’ to ‘Mediterranean sandwich” for what Berman says are “obvious reasons”.

Brenner also adjusted the menu slightly for the American palate. In addition to his decadent waffles, crepes, sundaes, chocolate pizza, fondue, and ‘huggable’ cocoas, he added two dishes with peanut butter, as well as ‘s’mores’, the classic chocolate-graham-marshmallow campfire treat, to the list of sweet selections. “These are ‘musts’; icons of sweets in America,” says Brenner.

The Union Square location, a $2 million investment measuring 4,800 square feet and able to seat up to 150 patrons, is Brenner’s biggest among five stores in Israel, 11 in Australia, one in the Philippines, and one in Singapore. A second Manhattan location, at 141 Second Ave. and 9th in the East Village, is scheduled to open soon.

Although the first branch has so far been a success, some have accused Brenner of taking too great a risk by opening a second store in succession, especially since the brand’s previous attempt to penetrate one foreign market – the UK – ended in failure in 2000. Brenner is nevertheless confident about the New York locations.

“If we were opening 20 stores, it would be risky. But two is a fair trial,” he says. Having two stores in two different areas of the city will help Strauss-Elite, the Israeli food company that now owns Max Brenner Chocolate, to gain a deeper understanding of the American market, a critical step in the process of opening more franchises in the future.

“To start, we are no strangers to entering foreign markets,” says Brenner. “Secondly, over the last five years we have had a lot of positive responses from Americans who have visited locations in Israel, and Australia,” he says. “I would say that makes our duo-debut in New York a calculated risk.

“Thirdly,” he adds, “Strauss-Elite is a big business, so it can handle the risk. If we were a small operation, we might not be able to.”

Brenner can remember a time when Max Brenner was a small operation. The Max Brenner Chocolate empire that exists today all started with a tiny chocolate boutique in Rehovot in 1996 called ‘Handmade chocolate by Max Brenner’, opened jointly by Oded (who had just returned to Israel from a six-year apprenticeship with a pastry and chocolate chef in Paris), and candy store owner Max Fichtman.

Shortly thereafter, in 1999, the pair opened the very first Chocolate bar in Sydney, Australia. A year later, an Israeli businessman in New York, Boaz Sheinfeld, bought Fichtman’s share of the company and tried, unsuccessfully, to develop the chain in the US and London. In August, 2001, Sheinfeld sold the business to Strauss-Elite. Since then, locations have opened up around the world, the most recent of which are the two in New York. “The stores have been very successful in Australia and in Israel, and I hope the Manhattan locations can match that success,” says Brenner.

Like Berman, Brenner believes that it’s the restaurant’s unique concept that has Americans hooked. “Chocolate is not just about taste, and the café is not just another beautiful design,” says Brenner, whose slogan, “Creating a new chocolate culture in the world”, betrays Brenner’s greater aim: to change the world with chocolate.

Until Brenner came along, Brenner says, chocolate, like other gourmet items: cigars, wine, and cheese, were “tasted” according to a very conservative, European format.

“Chocolate in Europe is very high quality, and there is a strong chocolate tradition, but there is no culture attached to it,” says Brenner. The tasting experience in Europe does an injustice to chocolate’s essence. “Chocolate is an experience. It’s emotional; it’s sensual; it’s romantic. Chocolate represents nostalgia and addiction. It arouses all sorts of responses and triggers all sorts of memories and associations in people.

“My dream was to create a place where people could fulfill all of their chocolate fantasies – they can smell it and lick it and pour it and drink it and see it in big slabs,” he says. “Nowhere except in Max Brenner are people responding to chocolate in such a casual, happy, and indulgent way.

“No one has taken chocolate to this level before,” he says. “We are offering a unique chocolate experience. People are constantly coming into the store and saying, ‘how did no one think of this before?’”

There are other elements of Israeli culture that 38-year-old Brenner, the figure behind the insigne “Chocolate by the Bald Man”, would like to see exported to the US; Brenner (who is indeed bald) would like to see Israel’s “balding culture” spread around the world.

“It is only in Israel that young people who are losing their hair prematurely, just shave their heads and keep their dignity,” says Brenner. “You see it from time to time in the States and Europe, but far more often you see balding men hang onto their leftovers of hair. When you start to lose your hair, just clean it all off,” he advises.

This is not the only thing he misses about Israel. Although he says he loves New York (he moved there in October 2005 to open the new stores), Brenner says there is no place like home. “There is something very special about Tel Aviv,” he says.

Besides missing his family, who all live in Israel, he misses the city itself. “Although it’s a big city, it feels like a kibbutz. It’s a beautiful city, too, but full of imperfections. Those imperfections make it feel more ‘human’ than New York, which oftentimes feels larger than life.”

This is partly why Brenner says Starbucks failed in Israel – because it lacked a certain ‘down-to-earth’ appeal. Additionally, he says, ever since the gourmet revolution hit Israel a decade ago – jump-starting all gourmet industries, including coffee, wine, and chocolate – the competition between coffee chains in Israel was just too stiff for Starbucks. “Starbucks couldn’t compete on a landscape that includes gourmet coffee chains like ‘Arcaffe’,” says Brenner. “There is no chain in the States making coffee at this level.”

Berman agrees, saying that Starbucks is geared toward American taste buds. “Starbucks is gourmet for the American palate, but not for the European or Israeli one,” says Berman. “But, coffee is like cigars; once you smoke a good one, you can’t go back to smoking lousy ones. Once you taste great coffee, you can’t go back to drinking what you drank before,” he says. “This is how we intend to hook Americans on Aroma.”

According to Brenner, Max Brenner Chocolate and Aroma Espresso Bar are just the beginning. “Israel has a lot to offer,” says Brenner. “Israelis are very innovative, and have this amazing, entrepreneurial spirit.”

Already, Israeli jewelry designer Michal Negrin, and Israeli soap store Sabon have set the US market aflame. But, says Brenner, there are still many to go. “I think once they see that we have succeeded here, it will encourage them to expand out of Israel as well,” he says. As for Max Brenner Chocolate: “I hope we will open more and more in the future,” he says. “It is a beautiful story that I hope will have a beautiful ending.”





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