Three years ago, Yona Levy's wife began treating their children to gelato with startling frequency, or so he thought. More than a little curious, Levy ducked into an Aldo franchise in Jerusalem to sample the frozen dessert.
"I don't like ice cream generally," said Levy, an investor with an eye and a palate for business, who quickly recognized his wife was onto something. "After I went to that store, I was addicted," he said.
Eight months ago, he closed his business and moved to New York to bring the popular Israeli gelato brand to the United States. "I wanted to take it to America myself," he said.
Aldo, with more than 50 franchises in Israel, is set to open its first in New York City in June. Renamed Screme for the American market - to avoid a trademark conflict with the shoe store - it will sell 10 basic flavors, including mango and chocolate, as well as seasonal offerings.
The inaugural shop will open in early June on the Upper West Side, at Broadway and West 70th Street. Two other locations, one on Eighth Avenue downtown and another at an unknown spot on the Upper East Side, will be next. Plans are in the works for five additional locations this year. "Next year, we're really going to go big," Levy said.
He drew a sharp distinction between gelato and ice cream. "The important part is making it in the store, so it's fresh," he said. Each serving contains less than 200 calories and some fruit flavors have zero fat.
A signature component of gelato is fresh ingredients and flavors, such as fruit, pistachio and herbs. "You produce the flavors in the store," said Yuval Maymon, a co-partner of the Israeli gelato chain. Maymon and another partner, Meir Dahan, purchased the original recipe and brand from its creator, Aldo Deconsilio. "You can come up with an amazing new flavor because you have it on the spot."
With a single serving starting at $5, and more elaborate creations ranging from $12 to $18, Levy dismissed concerns about the struggling economy. "If you have something that can work, there's no better time," he said.
INDEED, SCREME is not the first Israeli retailer to tap the market in New York City. In 2003, Sabon, the retailer of bath soaps and body products, opened its first location in New York and quickly grew to seven locations in the city, with plans to expand further.
Aroma Espresso Bar, which has 90 branches in Israel, opened its first New York branch in SoHo in 2006. It has since opened a franchise in Toronto and one on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Erez Cohen, the owner of Pita Joe, a falafel and schnitzel restaurant in New York, said his reason for opening up a restaurant that served Israeli wares had been a longtime dream. But he found a welcome market for authentic Israeli food.
"When we bring it here, I think that people experience some of the flavor and spices that we use in Israel, and I think that makes a difference. It's not like ordinary stuff that you can get here," he said.
But Screme may face competition from other frozen dessert shops, such as Grom, a popular Italian gelato in New York. In recent years, a cohort of frozen yogurt shops like Pinkberry, Yolato and Red Mango have dominated the market.
Fans of the Israeli gelato think otherwise. "They will flood the place," said Edith Olanoff, a broadcast company executive who splits her time between Jerusalem and New York. "I've been to Pinkberry; it's a different league," she said. "It's a Chevrolet and this is a Ferrari."
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