The focus group that assembled early one October morning in a room with cubbyholes and miniature furniture had but one mission. Finger painting would have to wait. This gathering of two- and three-year-olds was organized into a circle to participate in a high-level marketing exercise used to cull invaluable information about consumer attitudes toward products. In this case, the pint-size, fidgeting circle was about to offer its feedback to a reporter on one of the country's most beloved snack foods: Bisli. As little hands clamored into the open snack bags constantly following their trajectory at every turn around the room, it became clear that the early childhood class in Jerusalem's Shir Hadash nursery school took the tasting part of its assignment quite seriously. Every hand that wasn't trying to wrench just one more Bisli out of a bag shot up when asked who liked the felafel flavored sticks best. Confounding the initial results, every hand went up again when asked who liked the noodle-shaped curly BBQ bits best. "I like them both," three-year-old Orly Roth explained of her double vote. "I eat Bisli in my house," two-year-old Daria Pear offered in response to why she liked the felafel sticks. Not alone, Pear's assertion reinforces the research conducted by Osem Industries indicating that 80 percent of households with children have Bisli somewhere in their cupboards - if not trapped in the crevices of couch cushions. Osem, the originator and sole manufacturer of Bisli, counts the army-aged population among "children" for its research purposes. "Soldiers like to snack a lot," explained Zehava Martinovitch, marketing director of Osem's snacks and cereal division. Despite the apparent popularity of Bisli, the bite-sized nosh comes in decidedly second to Israel's other national pastime, Bamba, in the hierarchy of snack foods - capturing just 15% of the snack market in comparison to Bamba's 25%. The reason for Bisli's second-place standing has to do with the fact that research suggests children are introduced to Bamba at a much younger age (three months) and don't encounter Bisli, on average, until they are well into their third or fourth year. The early introduction to Bamba instills in children a life-long devotion to the peanut-flavored snack extending into adulthood, so the theory goes. "Children eat Bisli and Bamba, but adults eat more Bamba," Martinovitch contended. (The one adult queried about his preferences, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski confirmed through a spokesman that he preferred Bamba.) Nevertheless, with more than 4,000 tons of Bisli produced each year, the product offers consumers an array of shapes and flavors that is second to none. At any given moment, a consumer can find eight different flavors on grocery store shelves, with six representing Osem's standard wares combined with two annual special editions. The regular flavors include BBQ, grill, onion, pizza, felafel and hamburger; the special editions have showcased tastes in tune with the Israeli psyche like shwarma and some that were not - pepperoni (note: all Bisli is kosher). If Bisli's dizzying assortment doesn't convince one of its primacy, then consider the fact that Osem's five factories are considered important enough to the population's welfare to be granted emergency operating status in the event of a war or similar regional crises. That means not even Israel's enemies can stop the production of Bisli. TO THE UNTRAINED eye or uninitiated tongue, Bisli which translates from its Hebrew name to English as bis (a small "Yiddish" bite) li (for me) might be confused with Cefli, its proverbial cousin manufactured by Telma-Unilever Israel. Cefli (lit. "it's fun for me"), however, did not enter the market until the early 1980s, a solid decade after the introduction of Bisli in 1970. In addition, Telma-Unilever marketing manager Doron Zilberstein points out that Cefli, which maintains 5% of the market, is manufactured using an entirely different technology from Bisli. "Bisli is a like a fried pasta, and Cefli is manufactured using a technology in between baking and frying that is commonly used for cereals," Zilberstein explained. The technology, known as extrusion, requires less frying, thus needs less oil and therefore contains approximately one-fourth the amount of fat as Bisli. Rafi Nachum, R&D manager of Unilever Israel, put the difference in the production processes in starker terms: "2000 degrees Celsius is the temperature for frying Bisli; 50 degrees Celsius is needed for Cefli." Not to be outdone, however, Telma-Unilever introduced Cefli-Crunch, a product similar to Bisli nearly 10 years ago. It caters to the haredi market. "Bisli has a different texture from Cefli, which is softer and tastes different," Martinovitch added. Noteworthy about both Bisli and Cefli is that they both supersede the rest of the world's favorite snack: the potato chip, which ranks a lowly third in the local market. "It [Bisli] is a uniquely Israeli food. We are the only country in the world that has this kind of product which is leading the market," Zilberstein maintained. The logic behind the potato chip's seeming lack of success might have less to do with local preferences and more to do with the historical development of both products. Potatoes were not as accessible here at one time as they are now. Corn and wheat, the staple ingredients in Bisli, could be easily grown in the country, making the snack more readily available. At the end of the day, colors, sizes, shapes and manufacturing techniques cannot explain why Israelis eat Bisli. More succinct than the thousands of dollars spent by major companies on market research is the reasoning offered by two-year-old Daniel Weisberg: "I eat Bisli because I like it."

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