If Israel really wants to prosper, it needs coffee-to-go

Fifteen years ago I was sent out by The Jerusalem Post on a nearly impossible assignment: to see if it was possible to buy a cup of coffee-to-go in Jerusalem.

As a native New Yorker, I naively assumed that such a thing was a sine que non of every civilized city in the world. But not apparently in the Jerusalem of 1988.

Coffee-to-go was simply not to be found in the City of David. Most of the cafe owners I interviewed strongly expressed the view that the notion was un-Israeli, since this was at heart a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean country where the very thought of coffee-drinking on the run, as opposed to a relaxing way to wile away the hours (even work hours), was simply unacceptable.

The manager of the famed Atara Cafe did admit that he had looked into the possibility, but given up after discovering that the plastic covers needed to seal Styrofoam hot cups weren’t available in Israel.

What’s more, almost no cafe in the city was open before 8 a.m. because, as I was repeatedly told, “Israelis prefer eating breakfast at home.” The one exception I found was Cafe Ta’amon, the small coffeehouse on King George Street that has opened at sunrise since the days when it served the members of the old Knesset building just across the street.

“And can you give me a cup of coffee-to-go?” I asked its venerable proprietor, Mordechai Kop. “Of course!” he exuberantly replied, and proceeded to prepare a plastic cup of steaming java, topped by a square piece of Saran Wrap that was shakily secured by a rubber band. I doubt the cup would have made it very far on a bumpy New York City subway, but I did award him an A for effort.

At the time I thought to myself: If only I had an entrepreneurial spirit, I would open up a cafe in Jerusalem that served up good coffee-to-go at all hours of day and night. Alas, while I heartily enjoy drinking coffee, I’ve never had any desire to dish it out.

Coffee culture in this country did finally undergo a dramatic revolution starting in 1994 when two young brothers, Yariv and Sahar Shefa, opened a small espresso bar-style cafe called Aroma in downtown Jerusalem. Aroma may not have been the very first cafe here to remain open 24 hours and offer inexpensive but top-quality coffee-to-go, but it was the first to really refine the formula in an efficient manner. Today Aroma has 30 branches around the country and has spawned numerous imitators; even Starbucks, which tried to establish itself here following its success, was not able to match it.

Last month the Shefa brothers, still in their 30s, were cited in Yediot Achronot’s year-end round-up of the “15 best managers of the Israeli economy,” alongside such heavyweights as the pharmaceutical giant Teva’s Eli Hurvitz and snack food manufacturer Osem’s Eli Propper. Although the publicity-shy Shefas never give interviews (making their success even more impressive), I’d love to ask them where they got the courage to defy the group-think mentality I encountered that believed Israelis didn’t want and need a convenient place to get coffee-to-go.

Aroma’s success story is especially worth pondering when the Israeli economy is suffering through one of the worst periods in its history. In large part this is because of two major factors — the global high-tech meltdown and the deteriorating security — that defy any easy or immediate solutions. But our financial woes are exacerbated by structural problems that can be addressed provided there is enough political will on government’s part, good will on industry’s part, and common sense on Labor’s part.

The Sharon government has already taken some steps in the right direction by moving to cut retrogressive welfare policies that encourage large impoverished families, cracking down on illegal foreign labor, exercising a greater degree of fiscal restraint and straightening out chaotic taxation policies. But calling on the Israeli people — especially its weakest sectors — to tighten their belts requires moral capital that the government still seems too eager to squander.

How can the poor, the handicapped and the working class not violently protest at cutbacks when they see Knesset members and local officials still indulging themselves, and their well-connected friends, at the public till? The same goes for business leaders who reward themselves with often undeserved financial perks that have helped pushed Israel into the upper tier of Western nations with the highest disparities in lifestyle standards?

As for organized labor, when will labor official Amir Peretz ever become a responsible representative of the working man, rather than a Histadrut hack protecting the inflated salaries of those public employees working in monopolistic enterprises like Israel Electric, Mekorot and the Ports Authority? And how can anyone support the leaders of striking dock workers when they manage to make an exemption on a harbor embargo not for humanitarian reasons or to help struggling small businesses, but to allow gambling cruise ships to leave port?

Israel has muddled through economic crises before, in the early 1950s and 1980s, and I suspect it will do so again. But even if all the above problems are solved (or, more realistically, eased), it’s going to take something more to get this economy flourishing.

Jews throughout history have been known (and sometimes reviled) for possessing a special entrepreneurial spirit. It may well be that this supposedly “innate” trait was largely a result of societal pressures that forced the Jewish people to be more creative economically simply in order to survive.

If that’s the case, Israel will never become the financial powerhouse its enemies (and even some of its friends) imagine it to be. But if this country is really to prosper rather than simply return to business as usual, some new thinking and spirit is needed. The same kind that allowed the Shefa brothers to gamble on the notion that what this nation really needed, despite what everyone said, was a good cup of coffee-to-go.

Calev Ben-David is the managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, where this article originally appeared.