Starting any new business in Israel presents a raft of challenges, but when the new business involves peddling a product previously unknown to Israelis, then you know you’re in for some fun.
Ask Joe Offenbacher. He’s the founder, CEO and chief cook and bottle washer at Brisk Beverages, Ltd. He’s the one who decided to bring Freezees to Israel, something no one else had tried.
What’s a Freezee? Descriptions abound, but Offenbacher describes it as “a new frozen slushy carbonated drink from the US that comes in cola and fruit flavors.”
Promotional literature suggests it’s simply “a frozen sparkling beverage.” But anyone who’s spent time in the US or Canada would more likely say it’s like a Slurpee or an Icee, the frozen beverages sold all across North America at movie theaters, amusement parks, shopping centers and, most recognizably, at 7-11 markets.
The whole adventure began in January 2009, when Offenbacher went searching for a business to start in Israel.
“My family and I made aliya in 2004 from Teaneck, New Jersey,” the 51-year-old says. “For 19 years, I had a business in Manhattan running a messenger, trucking and delivery service. Ultimately it was very successful, but for the first two years, I worked hard and lived the business. After that, I had good people working for me, and I became one of those fathers who could go to my kids’ 2 p.m. school programs.
“I figured bringing Freezees to Israel would be like that – only a lot more fun. I was right about the fun part, but it’s been a tremendous amount of work.”
With 10 Freezee machines now churning out sparking beverages in Modi’in, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem, Efrat, Hashmonaim and Ra’anana – and fielding daily pleas for the installation of a Freezee machine from store owners as far away as Beersheba and Eilat – Offenbacher’s business plan appears solidly on schedule.
“The goal is to put Freezee machines all over Israel.
We’re still working to perfect the system here in the center, but we’re definitely moving out to other cities.
“Plenty of merchants want them – the big issue is how we supply and maintain the machines if they’re some distance away.”
What’s the fascination with Freezees? “It was my son Rafi’s idea,” Offenbacher recalls. “One day I overheard Rafi wishing that he could have a Slurpee here in Israel. The idea struck me as interesting – why not bring Slurpee machines to Israel? “I started doing some research on the drink’s popularity in North America, and was astounded. Slurpee sells 300 million cups a year, and Icee tops that with 500 million. In California, in just one amusement park, Knott’s Berry Farm, there are 23 Slurpee machines – and they’re selling Slurpees for $11, while a pizza costs only $5! “On Facebook, Slurpee claims well over 1.2 million fans. If we brought the machines to Israel, we’d be the first. No one else was doing it. All in all, it seemed like a great idea.”
Aside from creating the corporation, the first step was to import the Frozen Carbonated Beverage machines.
“The machines are huge – 200 kilos – and complicated to set up. I buy them directly from the manufacturer, and went through a lot of training myself because the machines involve computers, mechanics and a lot of technology; but from the moment the first machine was set up in the Kaiser neighborhood of Modi’in, we’ve been going strong. The most recent installation was in Ra’anana on [Rehov] Ahuza, and that one is doing great, too.
“Initially, it helps to put them in neighborhoods with Anglo immigrants, who recognize the drink. Once Israelis taste it they love it, but you’ve got to inspire them to take that first sip.”
Getting that first machine up and running was a challenge, Offenbacher says.
“Doing the final adjustments took a lot of time. When I thought we were about ready, I spent four more hours with the machine making sure everything was exactly right. After that, I was on my cell phone for an hour and a half with the tech guys, so they could double-check everything.
“Finally, they said, ‘Okay, turn it on!’ – and I did. A hose came loose and sprayed the heavy duty concentrated syrup all over, coating the floor, the walls, even the ceiling.
“‘That’s it!,’ I said. ‘I’m outta here. I can’t handle this!’ “I didn’t really mean it. I tried to wash up in the store, but hours later, when I gave the guys a ride home, they still said I smelled like cherries.”
The cherry syrup boondoggle may have been the most spectacular snafu, but it wasn’t the only one.
“It’s a good thing I enjoy this kind of problem-solving, because we had lots.
When they shipped the machine – we’d ordered three-nozzle machines, so they can dispense three flavors – we discovered they’d shipped parts for the two-nozzle unit instead. It was about 5:30 on a Friday afternoon.
“I started calling around and – amazingly enough – on Sunday morning I got a call from FedEx – the missing parts [shipment] had arrived! That part was great, but FedEx insisted they needed to look at it, so they’d need my original license, plus another long list of things, all of which was going to take an extra two days.
“And, of course, on a Sunday morning, I couldn’t reach anyone in the US. It wasn’t resolved until FedEx decided that for a ‘small’ additional NIS 700 fee, they would allow me to take it then.”
Fitting Israeli hardware into US machines was another issue.
“I found a great handyman helper who works beside me, learning the whole system, so we both were surprised when the gas man arrived and pointed out we had the wrong kind of hose. We needed something that would take 1,000 pounds per square inch pressure, and that wasn’t what we had.
“That night, I went home and wrote up a long list of all the things that
went right, with the names of all the people who’ve been so helpful. I
needed to focus on the good.”
Few Israelis sipping Freezees realize everything it took to make it
possible. Although the US factory that supplies the mehadrin-kosher
syrup offers 153 different flavors, importing each flavor into Israel
represents a major undertaking.
“Each flavor needs individual approval – not just kashrut, but also from
the Ministry of Health. It has to be registered. Then, too, the flavor
house manufactures each lot specifically for us, so it’s not as though
we can go shopping – ‘we’ll take six bottles of this, 10 of that’ – so
we’re careful about decisions.
“Right now, the most popular flavors are cola, first, followed by cherry
and raspberry. One location sells a lot of ‘Morning Mist,’ lemon-lime. I
was surprised to hear that some people drove from their home Freezee
outlet to another distant one, just to get Morning Mist.”
Importing the specially designed “spoon-straws” – so you can spoon up every last bit – is another hidden issue.
“We’re still trying to decide how best to order them,” Offenbacher says.
“If I could order a 20-foot container of spoon straws – 1.8 million –
I’d save a lot of money.
But which ones? What size? The short ones are a little too short for the
bigger drinks. The longer ones are too long for the small size. We
can’t carry 15 different sizes. “And how thick do we want them? Seven
millimeters? Eight? What color? There’s no end to the decisions.”
Offenbacher went creative in advertising.
“One Saturday evening in Ra’anana, we had a ‘Free Freezee’ night at
Pizza Patzatz – that was great. We also decided to rent a booth at the
International Food and Beverage Show, a 20,000-visitor trade show for
the food industry on the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. We gave away Freezees.
“No problem giving them away – give anything free, and you’ll have a
line. But we need to talk to people, to make sure the machines are going
into the right places. The proprietor has to be willing to actively
promote the drink. Former Americans automatically buy it, but Israelis
need to be encouraged.
Sponsoring a football team helped, too.
“We have a ‘Freezee’ American Flag Football team.
They wear our logo, and right before every game, they chant the rallying cry, ‘One, two, three – FREEZEE!’ That’s always fun.”
In Hashmonaim, Freezees helped popularize a new pizza place.
“We put one in Momma Mia, a brand-new pizza shop on the bottom floor of a
shopping center. Hardly anyone knew where it was, but last week I
walked through, and a gaggle of girls were there, chatting away, all
holding different-size Freezees.
“The shop has become a regular hangout – half the people in Hashmonaim now know what a Freezee is.
“Maybe our most successful machine is in a pizza parlor in Efrat. That
vendor had the machine for about a week when he called, and said, ‘Let
me buy the machine. It’s doing so well, it doesn’t pay to rent it from
you.’ “He’s a little further away, but we have a common connection to
football, so we meet in the stadium parking lot to deliver supplies. I
keep hoping no one thinks we’re selling anything illegal out there.”
In Ramat Beit Shemesh, a wine shop dispenses Freezees.
“Win Vino has two shops, one of which sells cold drinks, ice cream and
candy as well as Freezees. Now they want another machine. That’s quite
Whenever we put a machine into one business, we get calls from
neighboring businesses: ‘We want one, too.’ “But I want every machine to
be successful, so we don’t want to put them too close together. Not
Marketing through Facebook works, too.
“One morning in the office we were reading some of the comments, and one
guy wrote, ‘Finally! Israel has Freezees! Now I can make aliya!’ “I
never really thought of myself as an adjunct to Nefesh B’Nefesh,”
Offenbacher quips, “but, hey, if chillin’ with a Freezee will encourage
aliya, we’re delighted to help!”