The Seedy Side of Israel's Beloved Watermelon

There’s nothing like cold watermelon in the summer, especially during a painful summer like this one. But why is this iconic treat so pricey?

Dafna Arad
Dafna Arad
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Watermelon in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Dafna Arad
Dafna Arad

Nighttime in Tel Aviv. Unspeakable mugginess at the pool on the roof of the Marina Hotel, feet immersed in water, elevator music in the background. I’m torn between two items on the menu: watermelon soup for 38 shekels ($11), and watermelon with salted cheese for 32 shekels ($9.25). The waitress informs me they’re out of soup.

In the meantime, some young tourists from Russia who are sitting nearby have already been served their watermelon and have divvied up the forks. They’re laughing and eating when suddenly a siren is heard, warning of a possible rocket attack.

Girls are yanked out of the pool, wrapped in towels, running every which way, spraying water as they go. Someone shouts that he’s had enough of all this. The first Iron Dome interception is heard, south of here. The bartender asks everyone to go down one floor, to the protected space. Amid all the melee, the Russian tourists go on eating their watermelon.

There’s nothing like cold watermelon in the summer, especially during such a painful summer. But the price? There’s no reason for watermelon to be expensive. It’s a basic consumer commodity, a well-loved fruit (although actually it is considered a vegetable). The ultimate refreshment. Iconic. It “upgrades” the beach experience – and also appears in many Israeli works of art (see box).

In the market, watermelon costs less than 2 shekels (under 60¢) a kilo, in fruit-and-vegetable shops it’s double that – but at seaside restaurants, where watermelon is an integral element of the menu, the price is hard to swallow, totally disproportionate.

Earlier this month, at the height of the season, we traveled the country’s beaches in search of the optimal seasonal-taste experience. From the culinary viewpoint it was a positive trip. The watermelons we ate were red, refreshing, cold and tasty. Financially, however, the money disappeared pretty fast – in part because we insisted on a side order of feta cheese with it.

While you almost always get the same sort of serving, cut in triangles or cubes, the price varies greatly. We found the most expensive portion at Topsea on Hilton Beach in Tel Aviv, where you fork over 63 shekels ($18) for a serving; if you want salted cheese too, it’s 68 shekels ($19.50).

One angry citizen, Ofer Haber uploaded that restaurant’s menu to their Facebook page. “It was the day of the Gay Pride Parade,” he recalled. “It was hot, and we all waited in line and I was hungry. But I was shocked to see the prices and just had to photograph the menu.

“It’s a terrific menu,” he continued. “Take your date there, and if he orders you something from it – marry him post haste.”

Haber told me that the most he’s willing to pay for a watermelon at a restaurant is 22 shekels ($6.30), and even then “only if it’s gold-plated, seedless, served with Persian silverware and silk napkins, and is brought by a hunk waiter who will give me a massage.”

However, he added, “if some guy from the market were to show up with a picnic basket and wanted to undercut the prices – he’d easily take over the beach and everyone would sit back with a slice of watermelon for the greater glory of the State of Israel.”

We got to Topsea at midday, and asked the waitress if the price on the menu was for a whole watermelon or a quarter of one. “A quarter, of course,” she said. We ordered the luxury item. It arrived cool, rindless, sliced into 10 triangles and accompanied by two saucers of salted cheese. Two triangles from the heart of the watermelon were inedible, so we left them on the plate; a quick calculation determined that they were worth 13 shekels ($3.75).

“So, what’s the story with the watermelon, why is it so expensive?” I asked a waiter leaning on the bar. “That’s how it is, ma’am,” he replied.

White cubes on the side

We drove to Lake Kinneret, virtually empty on a weekday morning in early August. Most of the kiosks were closed, and we spotted only two or three tents along the entire shoreline. At the Kibbutz Ein Gev fruit-and-shake stand we found Gideon Hod surrounded by gigantic fruit made of papier-mâché, steel and plastic. He was listening to classical music on the radio. He doesn’t sell watermelons.

“In the past five years, no one has asked me for watermelon. If people want it, they buy it in the grocery store. The restaurant also sells it,” Hod noted, and directed us to Ein Gev’s veteran fish restaurant. Watermelon does not appear on the menu there, but the waiter recommended it. The price: 30 shekels ($8.60); salted cheese added another 6 shekels.

The restaurant’s chef, Uzi Ben said watermelon is a winner. “I tried to introduce honeydew in all sorts of forms, like honeydew balls with liqueur in a Champagne glass, but it didn’t catch on,” he said. “Watermelon has proved itself.”

As for prices, he added: “That’s a sensitive issue. There is a simple equation involving a percentage of the actual cost. It varies among the beaches in the north of the country and the center.”

From Lake Kinneret we drove west, to the Mediterranean. We ordered watermelon with salted cheese at every beach we stopped at, and almost always got the same dish: a quarter or fifth of a watermelon, with white cubes on the side. At the Acre port we were directed to the fruit stands in the market. In Haifa and its suburbs the prices were reasonable; in Tel Aviv and Herzliya they soared to outrageous heights. Everywhere, though, the waiters defended the price.

“You can’t do anything about it, this is the beach. A scoop of ice cream costs 15 shekels, too, and a soft drink goes for 10 shekels ($4.30 and $2.90),” said one.

And: “If I slice open a watermelon in the morning and no one orders it, I have to throw it out.” And, of course: “This is hardly the time to talk about watermelons.”

At the midway point, we stopped at Nika Beach in Herzliya Pituah and placed an order. Slightly groggy from the heat, we sat on the balcony above the showers. The photographer, Tomer Appelbaum, shot the watermelon and rind from various angles before and after we ate. We then discovered that we were not the only ones who had come to the beach to take pictures of watermelons: Yaffa Ashkenazi, sitting nearby, used her Smartphone to photograph hers.

“My idea was to upload the image to Facebook with the caption ‘Breaking News,’” she laughed, adding, “When things are so tough in the country, people want to go out and vent their feelings. Watermelon is a comfort food, and the price doesn’t matter now. I know it costs 1.90 shekels [55¢] in the supermarket these days, whereas here it’s 39 shekels [$11.25] without the tip, but I get a chair, a beach umbrella, and the greatest view in the world, so it’s worth the money. We used to bring chairs and our own watermelon in a basket. Now we’re more pampered.”

How’s the watermelon?

“Great, but I prefer tasty and heirloom, not-genetically-engineered watermelon with seeds. Today’s kids don’t know that kind of watermelon anymore.”

‘Hair-raising stories’

So, what’s the deal with the high prices? A leading restaurateur guffaws when he hears what the seaside places are charging, and says the people there simply get away with murder.

For his part, Avraham (Tico) Franco, an accountant who specializes in the restaurant industry, offers a more rational explanation: “I’ve heard hair-raising stories about what restaurateurs will do to get a place on the beach, how much money was paid and how many hands it passed through. It’s a seedy business. And after the restaurant opens people are extorted by the municipality or the private owners into paying murderously high rents. Everyone gets his cut and in the end it all lands on the consumer. No one is forcing him to order watermelon there – he could eat it at home in front of the TV – but if he wants to relax on the seashore with watermelon, it’s naïve to think his money is actually being spent on it alone.”

Amram Yaluz, a farmer from the Galilee village of Yavne’el, has a great deal of experience in growing watermelons all over the country. It’s a high-risk crop, he said, because it’s vulnerable to pests and viruses, and sensitive to weather conditions.

“I’ve been growing watermelons for 44 years,” he observed. “It’s very hard work. For a long time I lost money, but I’m 68 and still at it, and will keep at it.”

As a veteran, what do you think of the prices at beach restaurants?

“They’re extortionists, thieves, big-time swindlers. Those places are exploiting the regular folks. A guy is at the beach, he’s hot, and he doesn’t care what it costs him at that moment. He wants a slice of cold watermelon now – and gets taken for a ride. You don’t find that kind of price anywhere else in the world. If people would think first and not order, the restaurants would lower the price. In Israel, the higher the price, the more people seem to enjoy forking over money.

“I sell watermelons to supermarket chains and wholesalers, which is where the restaurants buy from. Until a week ago, we sold watermelon for 70 agorot [20¢] a kilo. A big watermelon, weighing 10 kilos, cost 7 shekels [$2]. If a restaurant charges 50 shekels [$14] for a quarter of a watermelon, that’s worse than the Italian Mafia.”

How did a quarter of a watermelon become the norm at seashore restaurants?

“Because it’s not a bad way to make a living, selling a quarter of one for 50 shekels, especially after you’ve bought 10 whole watermelons for the same price. That’s a profit of almost 2,000 shekels [$575], so it’s worthwhile.”

Why does the price jump like that at the beach?

“People just want to make as much as they can. But if people were to boycott those restaurants, that would do the trick.”

How much are you willing to pay for a watermelon?

“I’ve been growing them for 44 years and now harvesting them for five months straight. Why would I buy one?”

Yoram Almog, a business consultant to restaurants, tried to calculate the definitive price for a watermelon, drawing on the fine points of menu engineering. After he detailed the pluses and minuses of watermelons, and of seaside restaurants, and did a quick cost-vs.-profit analysis, Almog said: “On the assumption that watermelons cost a restaurant 4 shekels [$1.15] a kilo and that the serving the client receives weighs two kilos, then a dish of watermelon sold for 31.50 shekels [$9] including VAT is in line with the criteria of the restaurant business and yields a gross profit of about 70 percent. There is an amazing profit if twice as much is charged for the same watermelon, which is in line with the profitability of a cup of coffee in the pre-Coffix era” – referring to a new chain of low-price coffee shops.

“But the price is also set according to the added expenses,” Almog continued. “Beach restaurants usually win tenders, in return for which they are also generally responsible for the cleaning and maintenance of the beach and lavatories. There is high depreciation of equipment and materials that the restaurant finances. The restaurant also pays particularly high rent, which can be thousands of shekels a day and millions a year. Let’s also remember that they operate seasonally: In the winter they usually lose money, so they exploit the potential of the summer to the hilt.”

Idi Israelovich, a veteran restaurateur from Ashdod, says watermelon is a simple but challenging menu item.

“There is nothing like a watermelon with a glass of soda water on the beach in the summer,” he explained. “People enjoy that. But it’s also the item that gets returned the most. One person says it’s not sweet enough, another that it’s too soft, the third sniffs it. You have to keep it refrigerated and separate, because watermelons absorb smells instantly: Walk by it with an onion and you can say goodbye to the watermelon. It frequently gets returned by customers and you have no idea why. It’s simply a problematic dish, a risk. But at least it’s easy to prepare for serving: We just cut away the rind and serve a quarter or a fifth, sliced.”

Your watermelon is one of the cheapest we found, at 22 shekels. How do you price it?

“A private individual buys a watermelon, lugs it home, peels and slices it – and in the end, what remains of the weight? Half. That’s part of the calculation. Watermelons pass through several hands, that’s unavoidable. In the end, we pay our supplier at least 4 shekels a kilo. He buys the watermelons wholesale and tries to get us the best ones, but that involves a lot of luck. We divide the price of the whole watermelon into four, and add to the calculation another slice, because with every watermelon we serve, at least one slice is returned. When you pay rent of 40,000 shekels a month [$11,500], and a war breaks out and it’s a bad season with no tourists, people who come to the beach will pay a little. There’s no way around it.”

Growing industry

Avraham Erlich, director of the vegetables unit of the Plant Production and Marketing Board in the Ministry of Agriculture, can talk about watermelons for hours.

“To begin with,” he explained, “there is a disagreement about watermelons and tomatoes – are they fruits or vegetables? It’s clear to Israelis that watermelon is a fruit, but in terms of our categorization and administration it’s a vegetable – an annual that grows on the ground, a vegetable whose fruit is watermelon. The yearly per-capita consumption in Israel is 12 kilos. Not very much.

“There are about 100 watermelon growers in the country,” he continued. “Thanks to technological and agricultural developments, watermelons can be grown year-round at a reasonable cost, but that hasn’t resulted in an increase in consumption. A decade ago, 150,000 tons were sold a year, but in recent years it’s down to about 100,000 tons, and people especially like the seedless ones. The main centers for growing watermelons are the Arava [desert], the Jordan Rift Valley, Lower Galilee and also Western Galilee. In August they are also grown in the center of the country, the coastal plain and the northern Negev, and also on the Golan Heights. You can buy small watermelons weighing two kilos and huge ones of 15. We also tried to introduce new colors – yellow and purple watermelons – but that didn’t catch on, even though they are very tasty.”

After the more technical part of our talk, Erlich is seized by nostalgia. “When I was in the army I went on furlough with some buddies, and we sat on the seashore in Tel Aviv. The locals ordered watermelon with salted cheese. I was surprised people were ordering watermelons at such high prices. I am from a moshav, and until then, when I wanted a watermelon I just went to the neighbors and picked one.”

Watermelon with feta cheese.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum