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Aroma Cafe Offers a Taste of Israel in New York City — but Just a Taste

August 4, 2006
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

If you’re half-inebriated at 4 a.m. after a night of clubbing, your food options might look bleak. Same if you’re hankering for a meal at 4 p.m., before restaurants start serving dinner. But the new Aroma Espresso Bar in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, abuzz with Hebrew-speaking hipsters, is serving up Israeli cafe culture 24/7, even if it’s Israeli-ness is a bit muted.

For transplanted Israelis in New York, the cafe’s red-, black- and white-toned interior is nostalgic. With 73 branches in Israel serving 100,000 customers a day, according to a company estimate, Aroma is one successful sabra, or native Israeli.

The SoHo outlet, Aroma’s first international branch, opened July 11, and already weary clubbers, eager businessmen, young couples and others with free time have found it a haven for tasty food and coffee.

Unperturbed by the large crowd on one recent Sunday afternoon, Jeremy Stevens, a graphic designer who is neither Israeli nor Jewish, sat typing away on his laptop. Stevens, who learned of Aroma from TimeOut magazine, called the coffee “really good.”

New York City may already have plenty of places to sip some brew, but Hanoch Milwitsky, chief executive of Aroma New York and manager of the SoHo branch, thinks coffee connoisseurs will prefer Aroma.

The Aroma Special, a decadent mix of espresso, warm milk, melted Israeli chocolate and whipped cream, is likely to be a favorite.

“We take coffee very, very seriously,” Milwitsky said.

Coffee at the SoHo branch is ground every two and a half hours, brewed in small quantities for freshness and never fully burnt — the same way Aroma does it in Israel, Milwitsky said.

The “Orintal” sandwich — generous slices of bread holding hard-boiled egg and grilled zucchini, eggplant and red pepper drizzled in tahini — offers customers a hint of the Middle East. Only slight menu modifications have been made from the Israeli outlets, said Noam Berman, Aroma’s vice president of marketing.

For example, the BLT — made with turkey bacon — was added to appeal to American palates. And the “Orintal” — a misspelling of “Oriental” — will soon be changed to “Mediterranean,” so people don’t expect something Chinese.

With an emphasis on fresh food made to order, it’s no wonder a continuous stream of people flows into the place.

“It’s gourmet fast food,” Berman said.

Employees are supposed to speak only English at the counter, but the 15-member crew flown in from Israel for the first months can’t help but slide into casual conversations with the clients, who include plenty of Hebrew speakers.

“It’s hard to speak only in English,” employee Sigalit Margalit of Hadera, 24, said with a laugh, pointing out how Israelis excited to be in a familiar place set the tone by ordering in Hebrew.

Near the counter, three women in their mid-50s engage in some people-watching, a pile of greens with plump tomatoes and strips of feta cheese before them.

“Aizeh chultzah!” — what a shirt! — one whispers loudly in Hebrew, pointing to a teenager in a revealing shirt.

“I know a lot of Israelis and native New York Jews will be happy to be reminded of the very best of Israel the moment they walk through our front door,” Berman said in a press release.

But, Milwitsky notes, “We are very cautious not to make this an Israeli” place. “We want to make this a place for everybody.”

For the Israeli employees here temporarily, working in New York City should have provided a brief respite from the tensions at home, but Israel’s war with Hamas and Hezbollah punctuates the otherwise cheerful atmosphere.

The cafe opened at 7 p.m. on July 11. Within five minutes, a few people had gathered outside to protest — even before the war with Hezbollah began the next day.

An Aroma employee offered one protester an iced coffee sample, which he seemed to enjoy, Milwitsky said. Still, the protester continued to chant “Don’t buy Israeli!”

On July 22, a crowd of about 40 people gathered to protest, holding placards and chanting “Free Palestine! Free Lebanon! Free Iraq!”

Residents of the building called police and the demonstrators were moved to the other side of the street, Milwitsky said.

The building management was worried, and demanded to see Aroma’s insurance policy, Milwitsky said.

“It was unpleasant, but the customers laughed,” said employee Oren Amber, a Queens native who immigrated to Israel seven years ago. Several passers-by came in just to spite the protesters.

For Amber, an attempt to boycott Israeli establishments is not only ridiculous but ignores the rich diversity of Israeli society. In Hod Hasharon, where Amber now lives, half of his co-workers are Arab, he said.

The crisis back home has everyone worried. Milwitsky, whose family lives in Haifa, found refuge in Jerusalem. Amber’s sister recently volunteered for the reserves.

But life races on at the New York cafe.

“What good is it to be depressed all day?” Amber asked. Better, indeed, to drink some strong coffee.

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