The Sandoka Secret

The popularity of Sandoka coffee among foreigners living in Jerusalem, including diplomats, tourists and activists like Lazarus, apparently matches its level of anonymity among most of the city's Jewish population.

"I have a bag in my parent's house in Washington," says Ned Lazarus. "And another one at my in-laws' house in New Hampshire and another in the home of friends in Boston, so even when I'm on the road, I won't miss my Sandoka." Lazarus, who spent five years at the Seeds of Peace educational center in Jerusalem, is talking about coffee. The popularity of Sandoka coffee among foreigners living in Jerusalem, including diplomats, tourists and activists like Lazarus, apparently matches its level of anonymity among most of the city's Jewish population.

The Sandoka coffee shop is located across from Herod's Gate, at No. 3 Salah a-Din Street. Its logo, featuring an elegantly dressed young woman leisurely sipping coffee, appears on the billboard outside, between two Coca-Cola posters.

Inside the store, Caitlin Rush and Alexandra Cornwall are carefully inspecting the full selection of chocolate bars while the scent of coffee beans and cardamom that is being ground for them wafts over the counter. Rush, 19, is from Idaho and spent a year studying in Cairo before heading to the Holy Land. Cornwall came here after spending two months in Damascus. "It's the best coffee I've ever had," says Rush. And her friend adds: "I bought a few bags as gifts, I don't even drink coffee."

A large amount of the coffee, which the company's owners import straight from Brazil and Colombia, makes its way back across the ocean. Without serving coffee to drink or clearing the shelves of the usual candies and bottles of ketchup that fill them, the roasting house has acquired the status of a culinary attraction in a city with no shortage of them.

Jerusalem was also graced with businesses that had an aura of quality about them in the eyes of foreigners. When former U.S. secretary of state Warren Christopher would visit the Middle East, he insisted on being flown to the city every night, even from Amman or Cairo, to dine at the Ocean restaurant and sleep in the King David Hotel. Sandoka is a Jerusalem legend that has managed to carry on in the eastern part of the city, despite the intifada and decline in tourism.

Something about the place certainly stokes the imagination of visitors. The light Brazilian or dark Colombian coffee beans are quickly scooped up and placed on a scale together with fresh cardamom. The scale almost always indicates that the salesman scooped up the exact amount that was requested, and the powdered coffee is handed to the buyer over the heads of other clients, in a paper bag that is still warm from the heat of the grinding blades that were used.

The whole family today runs the store as a team, managed by Yakub Sandoka, whose eyes sparkle with a youthful gleam over his white mustache, and his brother, Sadeq, both sons of the founder of the company, whose name was also Sadeq. The family arranges personal imports from distributors in South America and roasts and grinds the coffee here from beans that are unobtainable anywhere else in Israel. Beyond that, family member, Samir Natche, who speaks Hebrew, is not willing to say any more. These are, after all, professional secrets.

"My grandfather was a carpenter in the 1940s and his younger brother convinced him to invest in the coffee business," says Natche. Sandoka senior ran the business under three different regimes and transformed it into the city's most prominent coffee store. "The original store was a stall in the Old City," says Natche, "and after some time, we moved to this area."

Even before the coffee culture in Israel diversified, it was a crowded market. Sandoka senior competed with the thriving coffee roasting houses of Matuk and Zahiman, which still operate today in the Muslim Quarter. He died in 1990 and eight years later, his oldest son and heir, Ahmed, died.

Nowadays, a member of the next generation is already smiling at customers across the bins of coffee, his teeth covered in braces. He is the 14-year-old grandson of the original heir, whose name is also Ahmed. One day, young Ahmed will inherit the business, which also has branches in the Old City and Beit Hanina and supplies coffee to several notable restaurants in the city, among them Abu Shukri and Philadelphia, located inside the Ambassador Hotel.

Yakub Sandoka is well aware of his business' role as an ambassador of eastern Jerusalem to the world. "Every day people come here and send coffee to other countries," he says. There are also Israelis aware of the legendary place of Sandoka. "They have an empire there," says Arye Reuveni, a manager of the East Jerusalem Development Corporation, who lives in the area. "Matuk sells a lot to cafes, because their prices are lower, but each product has its special character; Sandoka roasts the beans in a special way, not using the Bedouin methods they do at Hisham of Abu Ghosh, for example, and that's what sets them apart from the rest." But Reuveni himself was not captivated by their success and insists on drinking Elite coffee.