An Israeli Brew Pours Over NYC

A branch of the Israeli coffeeshop chain Aroma Cafe has opened in Manhattan.

NEW YORK - The tractor with New York City workers crawled onto Houston Street last Monday afternoon. It was only a few hours before the grand opening of the first branch of the Aroma coffee shop chain in Manhattan. But the city workers had not been informed that their plan to jackhammer into the asphalt and turn off the water until the following day was at odds with the Israeli coffee empire's new assault on North America. Franchise holder Hanoch Milawitsky hurried outside to find out what was happening. "I asked them how it could be, and he told me, 'welcome to the neighborhood,'" said Milawitsky.

The water incident gave the Israeli Aroma team in New York time to tie up a few loose ends. And there are some loose ends, even if the large and well-designed, red, black and white lay out looked polished and ready (approximately $2 million was invested in the renovation); the hot trays with yeast cakes, cheese and croissants appeared one after another from the oven; the coffee was generously served to passersby and the staff was already wearing white "I Love Aroma New York" emblazoned shirts.

One of the loose ends is the "Oriental sandwich." In Israel this is known as an Iraqi sandwich, but its migration to America prompted a change of identity. "We're better off not telling Americans that it is Iraqi," explained Noam Berman, the chain's deputy vice president of marketing. "It gives them unpleasant associations". Somewhere along the way, zucchini and red pepper were also crammed into the sandwich. The spelling mistake in the English name of the sandwich, as it appears on a wall display, did not seem to bother the decision-makers. In the meantime, they have learned that here in America "Oriental" is a synonym for Asian, not Middle Eastern. So they eventually decided to call the sandwich the "Med," short for Mediterranean.

Lital Douani, an "outstanding employee" at the company's coffee shop in Hadera, and who was brought to New York along with 11 other employees to train the Americans in the Aroma doctrine, hadn't yet been apprised of the change. "What's been decided with the Oriental - with egg or without?" she asked outloud. But Milawitsky corrected her, "Uh, we no longer call it the Oriental."

The Iraqi wasn't the only item on the menu making trouble. "There's no cream cheese in the 'Omelet Sandwich.' We don't have any lettuce," complained Berman. "It's too dry. Let's get rid of the cheddar cheese and put cream cheese in instead."

"And there's too little basil in the 'Greek,'" noted Douani. "We should put in cilantro instead of 'pirsley,'" said Berman. "It's parsley," corrected Milawitsky.

Where everybody knows your name

The Aroma branch in Soho is the chain's 74th store, and the first one outside of Israel. The enterprise, which began as a successful espresso and sandwich bar in 1994 on Hillel Street in Jerusalem, has over the past decade grown into a thriving chain, with a presence in seemingly every nook and cranny in Israel. Company executives have now set out to paint the world in red, black and white, and to explain to the great huddled (and non-Jewish) masses exactly what Israeli coffee is.

"We have been planning to expand abroad for two years, and now the expansion plan has picked up speed," said Berman. He claims that by the end of August another branch of Aroma will be open in Toronto, and that branches in Florida and California are scheduled to open in the not-too-distant future.

The Israeli invasion of New York will soon be joined by the Max Brenner chain, which will be opening two coffee shops of its own. Notwithstanding the profusion of coffee shops in New York, Berman is absolutely certain that the Israeli formula will take the city by storm. "To begin with, we have better coffee. We saw this even from the tests we've been conducting in the past few days, in which we gave away coffee in the street," he says. Berman asserts that Americans will easily adapt to the chain's system by which coffee orders are filled. "People will learn the Aroma system. Over at Jamba Juice they also call out names," he said, referring to the neighboring juice stand.

The coffeehouse is situated on a major thoroughfare, and the monthly rent of the 650-square-meter location is a sizeable $29,000. Berman doesn't seem too worried. "I assume that the Israelis who are familiar with the brand will come here en masse. There are 300,000 Israelis in this city, and it is a much better demographic than in Israel - young people and entrepreneurs. Hundreds of people have been coming here in the past few days. Israelis are proud, it's something that is theirs, and everyone has been giving us a very warm welcome. Jews who have visited Israel are also coming in. There was an old married couple here who travelled for two hours and were upset that we hadn't yet opened. Everyone is in a state of hysteria."

The menu looks familiar to Israelis, in spite of the slight modifications, such as the fact that meat and milk products will be placed together between two slices of bread (to be baked on the premises), and anyone wanting a borekas will have to get used to asking for a "Bureka Treat." The coffee will be made the same way, but since the water in New York is not as hard as in Israel, softeners will not be added to it, as is in the case of Aroma's other branches.

On the subway

Douani, 22, from the Aroma Hadera branch, still had a hard time believing early last week that she was here. She and the other employee-trainers have been sharing an apartment, and until the official opening were not working overly hard - something that will undoubtedly change as soon as the branch opens to the public.

"It's strange here. Everything is big and different. I've never been to New York," says Douani. She reminisced about how she went to the company offices for an interview, was tested in English, and was selected. "They gave us a two-day course in English, so that we would know how to act with the Americans," she relates.

This is also the first time in New York for Aviv Haim, 23, from Herzliya, a bartender from the Aroma branch in the Arena shopping mall. "Simply amazing! America!" is how he sums up his first week here. "It is totally fantastic here. In the beginning, I was in a state of shock. I feel like staying here. Maybe I'll come back sometime."

Members of the Aroma delegation landed in New York prepared for combat, relating to the launch of the new espresso bar as if it were a commando operation. Out on the sidewalk, the Aroma women lay like Amazons ready to do battle, smoking L&M lights and memorizing the latest menu changes.

They told Noam Berman about the public relations blitz they had carried out, at their own initiative, the previous day, far below the streets of New York. "We wore the I Love Aroma shirts, and hung up Aroma signs in the subway," related a proud Douani. "We hung them up everywhere - on the subway car, on the map, on the exit sign. It was magnificent." The managers were impressed with the initiative. "They didn't come only as instructors - they're also doing public relations," said a thrilled Amnon Dagan, one of the company managers.

Americans don't understand coffee

On Monday, the coffeehouse was not yet open for business, and a hefty construction ladder was positioned in the middle of the store, although it did not stop several Israelis from making their way inside. The staff received them with coffee and cake, free of charge. "The kids are used to drinking ice coffee, just like in Israel," said Dalia Bindas of Rishon Lezion, who came into the shop with her daughter Yasmin and her friend Yael Halwa who was with her own son Raz, on a Bar and Bat Mitzvah trip with the children. "On the plane, we read that Aroma was opening in New York, and we said that we would go there, of course. Here, we feel like we're home," said Halwa, sucking on the square of chocolate that came with the coffee. She and Bindas concurred that it all tasted "just like in Israel."

"Once an Israeli, always an Israeli," said Bindas.

Sarah Brill, who was visiting the city with her husband, walked into the coffee shop during a break from shopping. "I told my husband that we really need coffee here. The coffee here is simply atrocious. We were in Canada, in the Rockies, in Vancouver, and we couldn't find any decent coffee. Americans don't understand coffee. They love their Starbucks. In my opinion, it isn't coffee. I don't know what it is - it's brown water. Finally, there is a place where you can drink coffee," she groused, and then downed a gulp.

Carol Lee, an American who lives in the neighborhood, dropped in to check on the new neighbor, and was given a free double espresso prepared by Aviv Haim. Without taking off her Prada sunglasses, she downed the caffeine fix imported from the Holy Land, and termed it "fabulous." Discovering that the coffee shop was part of an Israeli chain, she expressed surprise: "I never would have guessed. What is it that makes it Israeli?"