Thursday, January 19, 2012
The first few times I visited Israel in the 1980s, it was a struggle to find a decent cup of coffee. At the time, many Israelis drank "botz" ("mud"), which meant a cup of finely ground coffee prepared Arabic style in a small cup. Others drank "nescafe," used as a generic Hebrew word for any instant coffee. I wasn't a fan of either. There were a number of places where you could find a decent "cafe hafuch" (a latte) but it was a challenge.
The Starbucks chain thought this was a huge opportunity. They opened a number of cafes in Israel in 2001 but they were not successful. Israelis didn't particularly like Starbucks' burnt taste and found the coffee to be way overpriced. Starbucks wasn't interested in tailoring its menu to Israeli sensibilities and was not interested in investing heavily in marketing. It closed its six outlets in 2003.
But since the mid 90s, there has been an explosion in the growth of Israeli coffee chains and many of them offer fantastic coffee. It seems to me that these chains can also offer a good lesson to North Americans since they often offer high quality food to go along with the coffee.
Aroma Cafe is the largest chain in Israel with more than 120 cafes. Many, though not all of them are Kosher. They offer a range of European style coffees - lattes, capuccinos, espressos as well as some cold beverages. Aroma's real attraction is the excellent quality of the food that it offers to go along with the coffee. It has a range of salads and sandwiches on its menu which are mostly made up of fresh ingredients, breads baked on the premises and full nutritional information supplied at all of the restaurants. Each coffee comes with a signature chocolate, though the chocolates are all milk chocolates. I've always thought that Aroma would do better to offer the option of a piece of high quality bittersweet chocolate. The milk chocolates just aren't that tasty.
Aroma now has franchised locations in other countries as well. There are 7 in the Greater Toronto area and more are apparently planned. Picture something like a Second Cup or a Starbucks with slightly lower prices and a range of fresh, healthy food items. For now, the major Canadian and American upscale coffee chains have resisted providing a wide ranging, fresh, healthy food selection. Tim Hortons, at the other end of the spectrum has provided some great food but an entirely different type of coffee that is not in the same class. Chains like Aroma will give Canadian and American chains quite a bit of competition or will at least force them to consider adding decent food.
Another big chain in Israel is Arcaffe, with locations across the country. Arcaffe emphasizes the high end, Italian style quality of its coffee. It carries a range of espresso based beverages. The premises are usually a bit more upscale than Aroma and some have really nice outdoor seating areas. The Arcaffe breakfasts are great with fresh cheeses, warm toasted breads, a variety of spreads and eggs, made to order.
One of my favourite chains is Ilan's, which also does a brisk business selling pre-packaged whole beans and ground coffee. Like the other chains, Ilan's uses dark roasted Italian-style coffee but its coffee is slighly milder in taste than some of the other chains, though it is still quite full-bodied. The food menu is not as wide ranging though some of the Ilan's locations have a broader selection.
Other coffee chains in Israel include Cup O'Joe, Cafe Hillel, Cafe Neto, Cafe Cafe and a few others. These are all cafes with multiple locations in different cities. There are also many smaller establishments, modelled on European cafes that offer terrific coffee.
Overall, Israel has seen a huge growth in coffee culture and the proliferation of cafes across the country. The quality of the coffee is great and the days of having to settle for botz or *gasp* "nescafe" are long gone. The weather can also be quite conducive. Much of the year, the cafes are filled with Israelis sitting outside enjoying the coffee, the view, the weather and the bustle of the location, especially at the centrally located cafes.
Of course, sometimes its also nice to bring the fresh beans home and turn on the Gaggia...Inspired by a Toronto colleague, I'm trying to be a high quality barrista as well as barrister...My work is at the top of the article. The beans...from Ilan's.