Friday, July 28, 2006

the Israeli invasion

You don’t think that headline is very funny, do you? Well, just you wait. . . . But first, a little background.

After teasing us with giant window decals for more than half a year, Aroma, voted Israel’s #1 coffee chain by something or other, has opened its first branch in New York on Houston near Greene. I have to admit I was ignorant to its Israeli lineage when I first walked in last week, but it took about three minutes to figure out. A clue: when they called out names to pick up orders—which they do with amplification—every other name was “Doron.”

Seriously, Aroma is an interesting place, in great part because it seems to be an instant draw for ex-pat Israelis here in New York. Without this, Aroma would be a decent coffee bar with some slightly odd menu items—but not nearly as odd as the folks who opened it seem to think us Americans, or, at least, us New Yorkers, will find it.

For instance, good coffee is not that hard to find in NYC—and I’m not talking about Starbucks—and then there is the much-mentioned “Iraqi Sandwich,” but I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s go to the place where all this mentioning is done, and the place from where I get the chutzpah to title this post “invasion.”

Here are a few samples from a story that ran in Ha’aretz last week:

. . . the Israeli coffee empire's new assault on North America.”

The Israeli invasion of New York will soon be joined by the Max Brenner chain, which will be opening two coffee shops of its own. Notwithstanding the profusion of coffee shops in New York, Berman is absolutely certain that the Israeli formula will take the city by storm. . . .

. . . the public relations blitz.

And, the real winner. . .

Members of the Aroma delegation landed in New York prepared for combat, relating to the launch of the new espresso bar as if it were a commando operation. Out on the sidewalk, the Aroma women lay like Amazons ready to do battle, smoking L&M lights and memorizing the latest menu changes.

(emphasis added)

Geez, guys, you might want to tone it down just a tad. It’s not like you had a warm, cuddly stereotype before the latest news from Lebanon.

And, in keeping with this tone, the piece also stresses that Americans need to be trained in the “Aroma doctrine,” because “Americans don’t understand coffee.” Now, you are not going to catch me defending the generally middlebrow palates of most “Americans,” but maybe, just maybe, the Israeli consultants that seem to have helped with what is indicated to be mounds of market research, might have not known that US Americans tend to think of themselves as the only Americans. . .

Sarah Brill, who was visiting the city with her husband, walked into the coffee shop during a break from shopping. "I told my husband that we really need coffee here. The coffee here is simply atrocious. We were in Canada, in the Rockies, in Vancouver, and we couldn't find any decent coffee. Americans don't understand coffee.

OK, maybe in the rest of North America they don’t understand coffee (though I’m guessing some folks in Seattle might beg to differ), but here in New York. . . . OK, back to my review.

Aroma does make a good espresso and a pretty cappuccino, but Joe does both better. The Mud Truck might also have thing or two to say about the Aroma doctrine. So might Sant Ambroeus, or several other cafés. . . or caffes. The menu, which still sports the “Orintal sandwich”—the misspelled, renamed Iraqi sandwich—does have some tasty and interesting items (like "Burekas"—savory cheese pastry that you can get un-adorned or stuffed with cucumbers, tomatoes, hardboiled eggs and tahini), and it gives you the friendly option of getting a sandwich in three sizes. But the management has already had to adjust the prices on several items with less than elegant paste-overs, and no longer offers iced drinks as part of the “Power Breakfast” special.

The interior is a little too cafeteria-esque for me—especially considering the many months and the reported $2 million it took to outfit the place. The space is kind of un-comfy and un-edgy, so, even though they plan to offer free WiFi, it isn’t really the kind of place where I want to hang out all afternoon. Plus, I think I’d piss off the crowds of people that are always hovering, looking for a vacant seat.

Yes, I said crowds. Whether or not Americans, or US citizens, or New Yorkers have to be indoctrinated, the fact is that Aroma can, I expect, survive for quite a while on the Israeli ex-patriot trade alone. The last time I walked by, the line was out the door—and though I will not stoop so low as to traffic in stereotypes, that line contained a surprising number of guys who looked like George Michael, complete with aviator sunglasses and manicured stubble. . . but with a better tan and a clutch purse. . . and, still, not the least bit gay.

Maybe they’re from Vancouver.

(PS The New York Times wrote in more general—and less aggressive—terms on Wednesday about the proliferation of Israeli spots in NYC.)


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