Creating a Market Niche With Her Own Special Flavor

Inspired by a tour of the Mahaneh Yehuda market, chef Tali Friedman started giving culinary tours and cooking workshops in her studio. Among her satisfied customers: Mitt Romney and Martha Stewart.

Tali Friedman, a petite, energetic woman leads her students, members of a cooking course, through the alleyways of Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market on a rainy winter day. They huddle around as she searches for a good deal at Dudu’s fish shop, examines Georgian pastries at Khachapuria, cuts some serious halva at Mamlechet Hahalvah and deliberates which kind of cheese to buy at Basher Resto Cheese Bar. She goes from stall to stall, lecturing at length and with great fondness for the ingredients, sharing secrets of how to determine quality and where to find the best deals. 

Six years ago, after giving a similar tour, Friedman, 36, decided that was what she wanted to do with her life.

At the time, Friedman was teaching cooking. Before that, she’d worked at Eyal Shani’s restaurant Oceanos and at Ezra Kedem’s Arcadia. Once she made her decision, she left teaching and started giving culinary tours of the Mahaneh Yehuda market, at the end of which she gave cooking workshops in the kitchens of Jerusalem restaurants where her fellow chefs plied their trade.

Everything was improvised at first. Friedman developed the concept, and forged connections with the market’s merchants, on the job. 

“It wasn’t easy being the only woman in an all-male group of 400 merchants, but they were very welcoming,” she says. Today, she has a studio in one of the market’s alleyways, and at the end of every tour, the group goes there to cook under her guidance. With the help of sous-chef Sarah Paz, they prepare a gourmet meal made entirely of ingredients bought at the market (“except for Atlantic salt and olive oil,” Friedman says).

Tali Friedman’s Atelier offers chef’s meals, tours of the market and cooking workshops. It has five permanent employees and seven waiters who work in rotation. The customers are an eclectic sampling of people: from those celebrating a special occasion to high-level management personnel participating company team-building events, and many delegations from abroad. One well-known tour participant was American presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who came to the market during one of his visits to Israel. Martha Stewart was a guest at the studio about six months ago.

Friedman, who also published a book about Jerusalem’s culinary history, has become a kind of international attraction. She has participated in about 20 television programs on cooking and documentaries that have been broadcast all over the world. She was filmed for the documentary “Treasures of Jerusalem,” which will be shown on France’s Channel 3 as part of its long-running documentary series Des Racines et des Ailes. 

“It’s only when customers come from abroad that I realize how famous I am in other countries,” she says, smiling.

Finally getting the attention it deserves

When Friedman was just starting out, she contacted investors who at first didn’t catch on to her project’s potential. When she asked the local branch of the Small Business Development Center for a loan, they went into panic mode because she had no collateral. With nothing but a vision, she asked for half a million shekels to renovate the apartment she wanted to turn into a studio. Fortunately for her, the Small Business Development Authority is supported by the Jewish Agency. One of the Agency’s higher-ups got enthused by the idea and believed Friedman would attract tourists.

“He gambled on me, and his gamble paid off,” says Friedman. “My studio and the restaurant, Machneyuda, created a buzz for the market. At one point, tourists used to stay two nights in Jerusalem and four in Tel Aviv. Now there’s more of a balance. The Mahaneh Yehuda market has become a symbol of Jerusalem for the world. The market is finally getting the attention it deserves. Since we’re more modest than the Tel Avivians, we don’t get as much publicity. But we don’t have such dramatic ups and downs, either. Here, there’s balance.”

Friedman’s desire to be involved with the market led her to join the Mahaneh Yehuda merchants’ association, where she serves as a board member in charge of cultural affairs and the spokesperson’s office. “My joining the association and the marketing work we did have led to an upsurge in the number of people visiting the market and Jerusalem,” she says. One example of her work is the Balabasta Festival, which includes performances in the market. Balabasta is part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, which is headed by art manager Naomi Fortis and philanthropist Lynn Schusterman.

Friedman says the idea for the festival came from Italy – a fact that helped her get merchants on board. At first, some of them feared that festival events might hurt business. When she’s asked whether her position on the merchants’ association conflicts with her work in her studio, she says: not necessarily. 

“I was afraid at first, but people respect what I do. They know I’m doing it to make a living, and I’m also helping other people make a living. I just happen to wear an additional hat – making sure that all the merchants in the market can support themselves. There really are wonderful products here, so it’s not hard to sell them.”

After considering Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market briefly for her studio, she turned down an offer to open an atelier there. “It only took me only an hour and a half to see that the market wasn’t welcoming,” she says. It wasn’t just the merchants, she says – it was also the level of maintenance. “Since there are no trash cans in the Mahaneh Yehuda market for sanitary and security-related reasons, trash carts empty the garbage every seven minutes. So it’s one of the cleanest markets in the world.”

Customers make the best ambassadors

The blossoming of the Mahaneh Yehuda market has given rise to competing tours, too, but Friedman doesn’t feel threatened. “I’m in favor of competition, and I think there’s room for everyone,” she says diplomatically. “I have my own unique qualities. People on other tours stop me in the market and photograph me. I bring atmosphere, excellent food and myself. The personal aspect is very important to me. It’s exciting to see someone come back to me a second time – that’s something I never thought would happen. It’s not like people coming back to a restaurant they like. For me, it’s the creation of another event.”

An attempt to work with a public-relations firm didn’t go so well, so Friedman is back to marketing her product by word of mouth. “My customers are my best ambassadors,” she says, but she also knows that it’s the Achilles heel of a business: the fact that it’s built around her and requires her physical presence.

How does she cope with the demands of the business while raising three children? 

“I think being a mother makes me a much better business manager," she says. "When it comes to managing customers and suppliers, I come from a place that’s healthier and more whole. My children are the wind at my back. I have an excellent administrative manager, and I’ve learned to delegate and rely on excellent people.”

At a women’s conference held by the Jerusalem municipality a few months ago, Friedman was named one of the city’s most innovative women. She was in excellent company: retired Supreme Court Justice and Israel Press Council chairwoman Dalia Dorner and Ruth Cheshin, president of the Jerusalem Foundation. “Even if we’re women in a man’s world, nothing should stop us,” she says. “We just have to get up and do the work.”

With the success of her business, Friedman is considering expansion. The question is how. “It’s been suggested that I think about opening ateliers in several markets around the world. I need to know whether it’s realistic to go so far out in markets I don’t know and think about partnerships. I also need to think about the identity aspect, which is so total and requires me to be there.”

Friedman’s mentor at Keren Shemesh for Young Entrepreneurs, Shlomo Elmaliah, is the managing director at Leo Global. He represents foreign companies in Israel’s commodities industry and says, “The desire to open a branch abroad is realistic. But first we need to understand very well what it involves. The birth pangs at the start require a lot of time and direct, ongoing involvement.

“As far as the total identity aspect and the need for physical presence – there’s definitely a price to be paid. When a business expands, it often loses some of its original authenticity. Because of the limitations in terms of time and space, it’s very important to find the right partners, people who have similar values and aspirations.” 

Ilya Melnikov