Found: The Best Coffee Shop in Israel

She is Israeli, he came from Germany, and together they founded a Jaffa roasting house that honors its regular customers.

The cupboard of fame − which bestows upon those whose names are etched therein an aura of genuine insight into all coffee-related matters − is made of pieces of old wooden drawers that have been turned into a shelving unit. The shelves are marked with the names of the owners of each glass. Only regular customers have this privilege and, to maintain it, there are two tests: the dust test (if dust accumulates on the cup, it means the owner hasn’t used it for at least a week or two); and the cookie test (Lotus cookies stamped with an expiration date are routinely placed on the shelves, and cookies left intact raise questions about the frequency of the cup-owner’s coffee drinking). The only other place we’ve seen which honored regular customers in this way was at an ancient Parisian bistro, hidden away on a narrow street behind the Saint Germain Cathedral. There, the owners kept personalized linen napkins starched and ironed for their privileged clientele.

“It’s about personal connection and mutual commitment,” explains Yael Schaefer (Ben-Yaakov), describing how one may come to claim a spot in the cupboard of fame. Yael is the coowner of Cafelix, the cafe and roasting house located in Kikar Hasgula in Jaffa. “We know exactly how our regular customers drink their coffee − everything from the precise blend of coffee beans to how much sugar they take, and in return they’ve made us a neighborhood home and community center. They’ll leave keys with us, and messages – even crates of organic produce. When Philipp and I got married, they draped the benches and the trees in the square with white fabric and showered us with love and kindness.”

Real sticklers

It’s early morning at the cafe in the square, near the Noga complex. Most of the modest space is given over to an array of jute sacks filled with different varieties of beans from various coffee-growing regions, and to a roaster that emits a steamy warmth. The customers, regulars and newcomers, sit at the few tables at the front and spill over onto the sidewalk and the benches across the street. There aren’t too many other squares in the Jewish-and-Arab city by the sea that have such a European feel to them, and Kikar Hasgula is one of the loveliest. This space once housed storerooms for chef Haim Cohen’s Keren restaurant. Before that, there was an aroma of smoked fish from the small family business that operated here (“The old folks in the neighborhood still wax nostalgic over the taste of the smoked salmon that gave the place its reputation,” says Yael).

Philipp Schaefer oversees the blends and the daily roasting. Connoisseurs of java agree that freshness is a key factor in coffee quality, just as crucial as the quality of the beans and the expertise of the person preparing it.

“In Israel, there’s no awareness of this important point,” says Ophir Ben-Haroush, a barista and additional partner in the business. “Most coffee shops don’t sell coffee that’s roasted right there, which has practically become standard practice overseas, and the roasting date and packing date don’t
appear on the packaging. We’re real yekkes [a nickname for German Jews, in other words, sticklers] about this. The roasting date is clearly marked, and if two weeks have passed, after which time the quality starts to decline, we donate the coffee to synagogues.”

Schaefer, 30, is the chief yekke here. A slender fellow in a gray cap, he’s a man of few words. This man of action is a perfectionist who keeps laboratory equipment for the testing of aromas and flavors in a back room. He was born in Stuttgart to a Christian family. When he was 20, after earning a law degree in Berlin, he began learning about his family’s Jewish roots.

After studying Yiddish for a semester, and with a growing interest in Jewish history, he decided to come to Israel to pursue a master’s degree in Middle East studies. At Tel Aviv University, he met Yael, who came from a secular family in Herzliya. They married once Schaefer completed the conversion process, and today they keep kosher and are Shabbat-observant.

“I studied economics,” says Yael. “And I had a good job in the investment field. Philipp, who’d always had an interest in coffee, would often complain about the quality of the coffee in Israel. For some reason, Israelis have this idea that we’re a coffee superpower, but that’s far from the truth.

“Eventually, we decided to try to open a roasting house here, to make high-quality coffee. Philipp went to Germany, to a small village where there’s a famous factory, more than a century old, that makes coffee roasters. The idea was to apprentice in the field.

“Learning the trade, putting together the business plan and the search for a location took almost two years. At first we didn’t plan that I would be a part of it, too. We didn’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. But since Philipp’s Hebrew wasn’t that good at the time, I got totally sucked into it, too.”

Yes to flavor, no to labels

When they found the space in Kikar Hasgula, they began remodeling it themselves (“It was a total wreck,” recalls Yael. “Even the agent who showed us the place told us to hurry up so he could show us others”), and in January 2011 they opened it with the name Cafelix (“Israelis have this perception that the name ‘Philipp’ implies someone serious and somber, but he’s known to family and friends as Felix”). According to the business model, the place was meant to be a local roasting house that would supply good fresh coffee to restaurants, cafes and bars. So the couple began going door to door, trying to court business.

“We were naive,” says Yael. “Neither of us knows how to promote ourselves and we had no idea just how rotten the market is. We thought that if we offered good coffee to restaurants and bars, they would buy it from us. We didn’t realize that good coffee is not the issue. If you don’t throw in a free coffee machine, brand-label coffee mugs and other goodies the big companies offer restaurant owners, there’s nothing to talk about. Nobody will even bother tasting your coffee or try to work with you to create a unique blend that suits his taste and will be served only at his establishment. To this day, except for the font we use for the name, we haven’t done anything about labeling the packages of coffee. The way things are in the coffee business here reminds me of what the cellular market was like before the reform. The big companies put together tempting packages for the restaurateurs, and it’s the small consumer who ends up losing when it comes to quality and price.”

For the first months, the couple sat there almost alone, getting bored and frustrated. But slowly, neighborhood residents − artists and craftspeople renting studio space, longtime and new inhabitants − drawn by the intoxicating aroma of roasting coffee, began to discover the place. “We opened a roasting house and we put in a small espresso bar for tastings for business customers,” says Yael. “The first chairs were ones we brought from our living room; we didn’t even bother to buy furniture or design the coffee shop. But as time went on, the traffic increased. The cupboard for the regular customers also came into being when we weren’t sure what to do − whether to use disposable cups that are not environmentally friendly, or to give the neighbors their own cups to use. And I made the first cookies and pastries in our apartment.”

The reputation of this fine coffee − and this really is the best coffee in
Israel − reached far and wide, and the couple found themselves working from morning till night six days a week. Seeing how hard it would be to keep the business going alone, they brought in two more partners, professional baristas Ben-Haroush and Asaf Biton.

“The two of us live and breathe coffee,” says Ben-Haroush. “I started working at an espresso bar in the Malha Mall [in Jerusalem] when I was 15, and I also spent seven years living in Melbourne, a real coffee mecca where there’s no such thing as a coffee shop that doesn’t roast its own blend on the premises. I started a professional school for baristas and I made a living for a good while by hiring out emergency barista service. The quality of the coffee and the reputation of a place that has good coffee are so important that businesses look for professional baristas to fill in for regular workers who are off sick or can’t show up to work for some other reason.”

The four young and dedicated partners recently opened a second small branch on Shlomo Hamelech Street. Philipp still roasts the fresh coffee in Jaffa, but visitors to the central Tel Aviv location can enjoy a truly splendid espresso or cappuccino or affogato − a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with a shot of hot espresso.

One can also buy some of the fine blends to take home, and have them ground to suit a home espresso machine, filter or Turkish-style coffee. The young bunch from Cafelix strongly recommends the French press as a method for preparing excellent coffee at home.

Even if the local restaurant scene has yet to seriously catch on to the need for superb, unique coffee blends, a genuine coffee culture could also percolate from the bottom up.

Cafelix, 15 Sgula Street, Jaffa, 03-5469890; Shlomo Hamelech 12, Tel Aviv, 03-5250388

Dan Peretz
Dan Peretz
Dan Peretz
Dan Peretz