Extended Shelf Life for Israel Food Industry
November 19, 2009
When the staff at Hummus Place hauled the oven into the kitchen of the Israeli-owned chain's flagship branch and switched it on, no one was quite sure it would work.
After all, the baking equipment had been collecting dust in a storage room for five years.
A few minutes later, the first of hundreds of piping-hot pitas began emerging from the oven, soft and moist on the inside, and firm on the outside -- just like they make them back in Israel.
"It felt like the right moment," Yigal Ashkenazi, a senior manager at the chain, said of Hummus Place's decision to start baking its own bread. "Business is booming. During peak hours, there are lines outside all our branches."
Hummus Place, which began life as a small restaurant in East Greenwich Village in 2004, opened at its fifth location in New York two months ago. Many other Israeli-owned food businesses in the United States are reporting similar successes offering the kind of fare found in the Old Country.
Including right here at home in Philadelphia.
Maoz Falafel, a fast-food franchise started by an Israeli couple in Amsterdam nearly 30 years ago, opened its first U.S. store in Philadelphia in 2004, and is now in the midst of a nationwide expansion. The company says that it plans to have at least 15 stores across the country by next year.
The apparent growing enthusiasm in the United States for Israeli food is by no means limited to hummus and falafel.
Chef Michael Solomonov offers a gourmet take on the tastes of his native Israel at Zahav restaurant, a Philadelphia hot spot with a growing national reputation.
"There are so many different cultural and gastronomic ideas that make up Israeli cuisine," said Solomonov. "Our kebabs are Romanian or Bulgarian, the merguez sausage is Moroccan, we have chraime fish stew from North Africa and kubbeh dumpling soup from Iraq."
Since opening last year, Zahav has received glowing reviews in the local and national press. Solomonov said that he might open a second branch in another city.
It's not just restaurants. Israeli-style and Israeli-manufactured foods are increasingly visible at U.S. supermarkets, especially in areas with large Jewish communities.
"There's no question that Israeli foods have become more popular, largely because improvement in the packaging and more effective marketing," said Menachem Lubinsky, who runs the annual Kosherfest trade show, which just concluded in New York. "Sales of salads in the kosher market have tripled over the past few years."
Israeli companies export $115 million worth of food to the United States annually, up from $30 million a decade ago, according to Lubinsky.
Janna Gur, editor of the Israeli food magazine Al Hashulchan and author of The Book of New Israeli Food, noted that American palates have been won over by the nutritious value of Israeli food.
"With the widespread problem of obesity in the U.S., many Americans are looking to eat more healthily," said Gur. "Israeli food has more vegetables and less meat. We are the only people in the world that eats salad for breakfast."
Israeli cuisine is a relative newcomer to the culinary world, a loose mix of different foods Jewish immigrants brought with them from the Diaspora, combined with local fare Middle Easterners had been eating for centuries.
Some Israeli-owned operations hoping to tap the mainstream U.S. food market choose not to highlight their Israeli credentials.
Sabra -- a food manufacturer that makes packed hummus and salads, and is jointly owned by the Israeli Strauss-Elite company and PepsiCo -- recently launched a national ad campaign based on its "Mediterranean" appeal.
Other food companies owned by Israelis have also expressed ambivalence.
"We are a company which was set up by Israelis, but our emphasis is on vegetarian food," said Yair Marinov, a senior executive at Falafel Maoz and an Israel native.
"We're kosher, but we have no direct connection to Israel or Israeli food. We're competing with McDonald's and Burger King," he said.
Ori Apple, founder and owner of Hummus Place, noted that there's a balance when it comes to how strongly to identify Israeli roots.
"Most of our customers aren't Israeli, and have no idea what the origin is of the food we have here," he said. "At the end of the day, we're selling hummus, not Israel."