Did you make a date to meet a friend for coffee at Dizengoff Center? You'd better be more specific. Walk inside the Tel Aviv mall and you'll immediately hit a countertop outlet run by Coffee Bean. Keep going and you'll smell the scent of Arcaffe's offerings downstairs. Go up to the third floor and the waiters at Greg Cafe will welcome you with smiles. Continue on that floor and you'll find a branch of Cafe Cafe. Not yet satisfied with the selection? You could also try the Aroma Cafe on the second floor.

Dizengoff Center is no different from other malls or shopping centers in terms of its selection of cafes. When this millennium began, such chains were just starting out. But today, according to market research company Dun & Bradstreet and economic consulting firm Czamanski Ben Shahar, these chains comprise a third of the cafe sector - which boasts more than 1,500 cafes turning over NIS 2.7 billion a year.

Beyond the traditional morning meal of coffee and croissant, these cafes also offer a wide range of sandwiches and salads. Such items, in theory, would be priced affordably, but in fact the prices range widely. We looked at prices at eight leading chains in Israel: Aroma (123 outlets), Cafe Cafe (96 branches), Cafe Joe (Cup of Joe - 62), Greg Cafe (44), Arcaffe (26), Hillel Cafe (23), Kakao (17) and Coffee Bean (14). We did not differentiate between Aroma Israel and Aroma Tel Aviv as the consumer tends not to realize they have different ownership.

What is listed below reflects the price of takeaway, not sitting at the establishment. In most cafes the price remains the same, though some do provide discounts on takeaway meals. Cafe Joe offers the biggest discount: to sit at the establishment, eat a tuna sandwich and drink a Coke costs NIS 40, but the same order on takeaway costs NIS 28. At Aroma and Cafe Cafe, the difference amounts to no more than NIS 2-4.

First we sought to find out which cafe offers the cheapest lunch. To do so, we chose a product all of them offer - the humble tuna sandwich, plus a bottle of Coca Cola.

We found that Aroma offers the best deal: tuna and Coke for NIS 31. The most expensive was Cafe Cafe, where a tuna sandwich and soda set us back NIS 50. That's a difference of 61%. Cafe Greg was also expensive, asking NIS 49 for the fish sandwich and Coke.

We found a similar price difference when buying coffee and a croissant.

Here Cafe Cafe and Arcaffe were the the most expensive, asking NIS 21. Aroma asked for NIS 12, a difference of 42%.

The figures show significant differences in price can exist between the cafe chains, whether for a morning snack or afternoon sandwich. But in any case, a survey by the market research company Panels found that cost wasn't necessarily the deciding factor for Israelis when choosing a venue. More than half of respondents (52%) say they make their selection based on the chain's accessibility and availability, while only 41% chose based on how the food and drink taste. Just 26% said price was crucial to their decision.

This could explain the great popularity of Aroma: It boasts the largest number of outlets among all the chains, with 123 nationwide. Cafe Cafe also has a lot of branches, but only 12% surveyed said it was their favorite cafe chain.

The survey examined 500 adults, of whom 65% said they regularly visit a cafe at least once a week, and 74% said they spend between NIS 20 to NIS 100 per visit to a cafe.

In an attempt to qualify how the public views the leading cafes, the respondents were asked which chain they think has the cheapest prices and which has the best service. In both categories, Aroma wins hands down - and at a wide margin over the next in line. Half the respondents said they believed it was the cheapest and 36% said it had the best service (which is interesting considering it's self-service; respondents were relating to service at the counter). Cafe Joe came in second place, Cafe Cafe was third and Hillel made fourth.

Aroma is self-service: you place your order at the cash register, pay, then wait for your name to be announced and pick up your order at the counter. All the other chains have waiters, and generally also offer the option of self-service at the counter.

Danny Kreifen of RestArt, a project management company for the food sector, says the main reason chains adopted waiter service on top of self-service is marketing. They realized they were losing on repeat sales.

"Say I'm holding a meeting at a cafe, and want another coffee, or to order dessert," he says.

"I see two or three people waiting on line at the register and give up on the idea. I won't get up and leave the person I'm meeting with by himself just for another cappuccino."

Indeed, Panels' survey found that only 25% of respondents say they prefer self-service. The remainder would rather be waited on, or said it didn't matter to them.

Aroma is unimpressed by that datum and says it doesn't intend to change its self-service concept. "It might be that generally speaking, people don't prefer self-service. But at the end of the day that isn't what will dictate where they go," says Yigal Sharon, CEO of Aroma Israel.

"People today have less time. They don't want to be held up waiting for service. They're stressed, they're in a hurry. People can sit down and take their time without paying for service," he adds. What's true is true: the data indicating that people prefer to be waited on has not hurt Aroma's popularity.