With Shooter at Large, Tel Aviv Becomes City That Never Eats

Restaurants, cafés and bars say traffic down sharply as people opt to stay home until police find perpetrator of Friday’s attacks.

Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv.
Ofer Vaknin

Tel Aviv likes to think of itself as the city that never sleeps. But since last Friday’s shooting attack that left three dead and with the alleged perpetrator still at large, it has become the city that’s too on edge to sleep – or, for that matter, shop or relax over a long, lazy coffee.

“The last few days have been simply catastrophic. No one in the neighborhood wants to leave their home,” said a waitress at the Fresh Kitchen café in Ramat Aviv Gimel’s Schuster Center, a shopping center in north Tel Aviv that also houses the produce store that employed Nashat Melhem – the man police are pursuing in connection with the shootings.

Residents fear Melhem may be holed up in the area he knew so well from making deliveries for his employer. Police have warned that Melhem could stage another attack, while many local parents have refused to send their children to schools and day-care centers.

“On Sunday, especially in the afternoon and evening, there wasn’t a living soul on the streets; the restaurants closed their kitchens very early. Yesterday, there was a little more activity, but still only about half the usual number of customers came. And it’s not just us. All of the Schuster Center is empty. People go out in time to catch a bus, but that’s it,” the waitress said.

The drop in business for Tel Aviv restaurants, cafés and bars comes after a difficult 2015, when a fall in tourism and a wave of stabbings hit Israel hard. Turnover dropped 6% nationwide last year, and 3,700 establishments closed.

Tel Aviv didn’t suffer as much as cities with big Arab populations like Jerusalem and Nazareth, but construction of the light rail network has snarled traffic and closed central streets. Turnover for the city’s restaurants, cafés and bars was down between 10% and 20%. in 2015.

In Ramat Aviv Mall, the neighborhood’s main shopping center, merchants said traffic was down despite it being an enclosed mall with guards on all entrances. Mall management estimated that traffic was down 5%, but one of the mall’s café owners said his business was down 40%-50%.

“On Sunday we hoped people were staying away because of the cold weather, but yesterday it got a little warmer but the place was still empty. That’s when we knew it was because of the terrorist being at large,” the café owner said.

It was a similar story in nearby Azorei Chen. Tzviki Eshet, who manages a handful of restaurants in the tony neighborhood, including the Greek eatery Greco, said numbers didn’t start dropping until after last weekend. “Many people are making reservations but add that they’ll only come if everything is alright and they’ve caught the terrorist,” explained Eshet.

On Dizengoff Street itself in the city center, where two patrons of the Simta Bar were killed and another seven injured, merchants said sales were still down, even though police believe the attacker fled the area shortly after the attack on Friday afternoon.

“Traffic is very thin, relatively speaking,” said Uri Raz, a partner in Piazza, an Italian eatery on Dizengoff. “Over the weekend, the number of customers was down 50%, and on Sunday it was down by just a little less, about 35%.

“We’re talking with our customers and trying to learn what’s worrying them. The message we’re getting is that only a minority are actually afraid to go out – and now even they are becoming less afraid – but people are in a bad mood and aren’t interested in going out to enjoy themselves.”

To aid struggling businesses on the street, the Tel Aviv municipality announced a joint campaign with local bars yesterday, offering a 1+1 special on drinks after 6 P.M. for one day.

Despite this week’s downturn and the continuing security crisis in Israel, business owners still expressed optimism yesterday.

“Tel Aviv businesses talk about a drop in sales. But I bet the minute they catch this terrorist, Tel Aviv will return to normal very quickly, because leisure and good times are part of the lifestyle – they conquer all,” said Shai Berman, director of the Restaurants and Bars Association. Still, even Berman conceded that owning a restaurant, café or bar remains a tough business. “Restaurant owners had been expecting big business for the New Year’s weekend and with tourists coming in, but the attack ruined everything,” he observed.