The Rise and Fall of the Jaffa Port Market

Maybe the concept was inappropriate, the marketing misguided or the bureaucracy insurmountable, in any case the idea failed.

Two years ago, Leora Ganor, a fashion entrepreneur, and her friend Irit Kesselman-Millet, a lawyer by training, realized a dream when they opened the Jaffa Port Market. The vision was to create a local version of Eataly, a covered Italian-style market in New York that originated in Turin, but to do it in the Jaffa style.

Perhaps the potential inherent in this ambitious project failed to come to fruition because it was just too ambitious, or because the attempt to translate the European, and partly American, cultural language to Jaffa just didn’t work. Perhaps this concept of the local adopting the global was just too confusing and not streamlined enough.

Out of all the desire to offer an interesting and eclectic mix that ran the gamut from dried fruit to seafood, only five businesses have managed to remain, including restaurateur Ronen Erditi’s juice bar, Yiftah Shavit’s home goods store and chef Eyal Lavie’s Rokach Yam food bar. The failure could also be attributed to bureaucratic and legal hurdles. But the bottom line is that the Jaffa Port Market, which sought to be the romantic southern answer to the Tel Aviv Port in the north of the city, and to combine old and new, history and modern foodie culture, has been a failure – leaving behind empty shelves, abandoned stalls and shell-shocked merchants.

Dror Brotfeld, the attorney representing the Milgan company which owns the site, accuses the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality of not fulfilling its part of the contract and not bearing part of the investment burden. “Milgan invested millions of shekels in the port compound, with the municipality having pledged to construct buildings around it and to open stores on the floor above,” he says.

Brotfeld says that as with the Tel Aviv Port, the Hatachana complex and the Sarona complex, the food is essentially a supplementary product that cannot stand on its own. Therefore, he says, the municipality should have also seen to the commercial aspects of the project, be it advertising, construction or renovation to sustain the area and “breathe life into it so it would attract tourists and visitors.”

Brotfeld elaborates on the municipality’s part in the deal: “Instead of producing special events and festivals, whether it be a jazz festival or a ‘soup week’ – the [Tel Aviv Economic Development] Authority moved events created by subcontractors at the site to other sites like Hatachana or the Tel Aviv Port. They didn’t even invest in proper signage, so people would know just where the Jaffa Port Market is. And worse – when the contracting merchants took the initiative and put up signs, what happened? Municipal inspectors showed up and issued fines. So, with it difficult to find the market and without any special events or festivals going on, only on the weekends were they able to somehow keep their heads above water and attract visitors.”

Thus, as Brotfeld describes, instead of becoming a tourist magnet as intended, the Jaffa Port Market turned into another white elephant.

Shavit, owner of a home gadget store at the site, tells a slightly different story: “Three people built this place: one marketing expert and two lawyers who don’t know anything. They made a beautiful place but didn’t know how to market it. Due to the lack of budget, there was always a need to think small. And on top of all this, the municipality didn’t help.”

He says that the opening of the port, at least in the beginning, was a success – but it was the kind of fleeting success that’s typical of any grand opening. “So it was going okay in the first year, but after that things just started going downhill. And instead of lowering the rent to keep us here, all the merchants began leaving, one after the other. The different stalls and shops started to close – from organic produce to baklava, chocolate and kebabs.”

One thing that everyone seems to agree on is the fact that the upper floor – which was supposed to house shops and serve as an attraction itself – instead came to house the offices of the HOT cable company and i24 News did not help the situation at all.

It was only this week that the site closed for good, but Erditi, the proprietor of the juice stand, says “the market didn’t fail yesterday. It’s been dying a slow death for a long time, whether because the municipality didn’t allot resources to make it a lively place, or because the people behind it didn’t come from the field and so they didn’t know how to create interest and make it a happening place.

“From the start, the mix [of goods and services] wasn’t exciting or sufficiently well thought out in order to create continuity, but that has to do with marketing strategy and management of a food site, something that’s surely foreign to the Milgan company, it’s just not their field. What matters is the result and the fact is that even people who did come here and walk around came away saying something like: ‘There’s something missing here.’”

To Erditi, the most tragic aspect of the whole thing is what’s happened to all the merchants who put everything into what they hoped would be a long-term investment and were left with nothing, and with the municipality and the promoters both leaving them high and dry. And all this is happening at the Jaffa port, “perhaps the loveliest, most authentic place in Israel, and instead of preserving and safeguarding it, they just want to be rid of it.”

Ultimately, maybe it doesn’t really matter what the main cause of the failure is, or who is most responsible – be it the municipality, which didn’t uphold its commitment to take an active part in the investment, or the promoters who failed to stir up interest in the site and the mix of goods on offer, or be it the merchants and service providers themselves. The answer lies somewhere in between, but the saga as a whole seems to be a reflection of the story of a number of new complexes that have come on the Tel Aviv-Jaffa scene with great fanfare, only to die slowly afterwards. Even the imaginary and symbolic historical line – that could have been traced from Erditi’s juice stand all the way back in time to the British Mandate era, when the hangar served as a packing house for Jaffa oranges – was not to be.

What was meant to be a rich local mosaic blending memories of the past with a modern culinary and consumerist site has ended up devoid of visitors during most of the week, and the sense of missed opportunity is palpable as the attempt to be everything to everybody, rather than correspond with the area, the landscape and the population, turned out to be doomed.

“Contrary to what has been claimed, the Jaffa Port Market does attract many visitors who patronize the restaurants, businesses and special events,” the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality responded. “For good reason, many businesses are interested in operating there. The municipality is taking and has taken many actions to bring people to the port, including free rock concerts by leading singers such as Assaf Amdursky, Efrat Gosh and Yirmi Kaplan, workshops and activities for children and the whole family on Saturdays and holidays, either for free or with just a token admission fee, billboards to promote the events throughout the city, ads in the national press, digital advertising and more. Part of the hangar space was leased to the Milgan Company for the purposes of operating a culinary market. The company directly contacted the subleasers and they had no direct contact with the Jaffa Port. The Milgan Company violated its leasing agreement with the port and the court ruled that Milgan must vacate the space by the end of January. In order to put the premises up for rent via a new tender it must first be vacated, and clearly the activity of the subleasers that worked with Milgan cannot continue, even if they would continue to work with the winner of the new tender.”