- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 13, 2006

NEW YORK

Yariv Shefa, an Israeli, developed a taste for espresso drinks while working as a mover in New York in the early 1990s. When he returned to his native country 13 years ago, he ignored warnings that Israelis would never buy coffee to go and opened a small, 20-seat cafe in Jerusalem.

Now his company, Aroma, Israel’s largest coffee chain with 73 outlets, has brought the American-style espresso bar back to New York with a Hebrew twist. In July, the company opened a flagship cafe in SoHo, replete with Mediterranean interior design and food.

With the move, Aroma joined a wave of Israeli food, cosmetics and fashion companies that have set up U.S. beachheads in New York, taking advantage of the large number of consumers with Israeli-influenced tastes.

Buoyed by Israeli customers’ longing for home, the newest businesses have plunged ahead undeterred by turmoil in the Middle East and anti-Israel protesters in the U.S.

“Israel is a small market, roughly 6 million people, and a lot of companies are hitting their limits there. The U.S. is an obvious place to expand,” said Hanna Kamionski, head of consumer products at the Israeli Economic Mission to North America in New York.

“There was tremendous growth in Israel during the 1990s in the luxury-products business and in high-end restaurants,” Ms. Kamionski said. “Now many of those successful companies are coming to New York. There seems to be a trend.”

On the heels of Aroma, another successful Israeli chain — Max Brenner, Chocolate by the Bald Man — opened near Union Square in downtown Manhattan.

This diaspora of Israeli chains began three years ago when Sabon, a boutique of handmade soaps and cosmetics, opened in New York’s Greenwich Village. Sabon now has six stores in New York and more in Boston and Chicago.

Sharon Hasson, 38, who runs Sabon’s U.S. franchise, says the expansion of Israeli companies to the U.S. reflects a generation of business leaders in Israel who have a more entrepreneurial and global outlook.

Some of the impetus for importing Israeli style originated in New York. Three years ago, Fern Penn, an American Jew who wanted to help Israel after the 2000 uprising, opened Rosebud, a SoHo fashion boutique exclusively retailing Israeli products. The former buyer for Macy’s has introduced more than two dozen Israeli designers to New York consumers.

Designer Yigal Azrouel spent three years in the Israeli army before moving to America 10 years ago with $500 in his pocket. Now he has a boutique in New York and a big presence in Saks Fifth Avenue. A white coat he designed was worn by actress Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

Aroma also has exported striking designs from Israel to downtown New York. The new cafe glimmers with red tile above terrazzo floors and leather chairs imported from Italy. The espresso roasts are also Italian and taste richer and less charred than Starbucks’ offerings.

“We give people a nice place to sit, even for a $2 cup of coffee,” says Hanoch Milwidsky, who is in charge of Aroma’s New York business.

By opening in the U.S., Aroma has moved onto competitive turf. Starbucks tacitly acknowledged the perils of Israeli-American cultural translation when it closed its six stores in Israel in 2003. Meanwhile, Aroma thrives at home and plans to open dozens of cafes across the U.S. — with Los Angeles next.

Mr. Milwidsky says Aroma has been careful to adjust its menu to American tastes. Aside from fine-tuning its fresh foods, it changed the name of a sandwich popular in Israel to suit American sensitivities. Thus the “Iraqi sandwich” became the “Oriental sandwich.”

This faint echo of strife in the Middle East was more palpable on opening day when protesters picketed the cafe to protest Israeli military action in Lebanon.

Mr. Milwidsky says Israelis are used to operating amid tension. While preparing to open his cafe, he recalled a well-known Israeli court decision against a businessman who had tried to dissolve a partnership contract because of the uncertainties of turmoil on the country’s border.

“The judge said, ‘This is Israel; there are always security problems,’ ” Mr. Milwidsky said.

For many Israeli customers, the emergence in New York of businesses with familiar tastes and style is comforting in troubled times.

Adi Lavy, 28, a photography student in New York who is originally from Jerusalem, says she is proud that the little cafe she once frequented with her friends after school made it to New York. Although she worries for her family — especially those in reach of violence in northern Israel — seeing Israelis in a displaced but familiar setting is reassuring.

“It gives you a sense of community in New York, which is what I need now,” she said.

Not everything about Aroma in SoHo is perfect.

“They’ve Americanized it,” she said. “The frappuccinos are better in Jerusalem.”

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