CafÃ© Hillel owner Irit Badash loves it when first-time visitors see OnePlaza: "This isn't Beersheba," they say. "This is New York!"Perched right across the road from the raw edge of the Negev, OnePlaza isn't exactly like The Big Apple. But clearly, the new shopping center is unlike anything else in Israel's south - and with its 'Broadway' lights and black-and-white English-language 'theater' signage, it does evoke images of Gotham. In fact, in one aspect, OnePlaza beats New York hands down: There are 1,100 free parking places at OnePlaza, either directly in front of the shops, or in a cool underground garage. Try to find that in New York!
The moving force behind the glitzy new development is Beersheba developer Mike Oknin. "I came up with the idea and about seven years ago began negotiating for the land and permits. The Center is owned by a family corporation - they raised the money to make it happen. We liked this location, directly across from the 'Big' shopping center on Derech Hebron, on the southeast edge of Beersheba. What was here before? An eyesore - an old garage and parking lot used by a trucking company. Now? Just look!"
There's no shortage of things to see. With 58 glittering shops, stores, cafes and restaurants, interspersed with bubbling fountains, greenery and plenty of comfortable shady places to sit, OnePlaza fairly sparkles. In terms of shops, there's a big Mashbir right near Toys R' Us, which was one of the stores to move across the street from Big to relocate in OnePlaza. Most of the shops are smaller outlets, most jewel-box perfect. Many are chain stores - Steimatzky, The Body Shop, Mango, Nike, Castro, Fox. But that was the point, Oknin says. "Big has all the mega-stores - Ace, Home Depot and the larger outlets. Here, we have fashion shops, coffee places, smaller and more elegant places to shop and relax."
Oknin wasn't deterred by what passes for common opinion in Beersheba: that too many shopping centers exist already. "Actually, for the size of the population in the region, Beersheba doesn't have enough shopping centers," Oknin says. "Our customers don't come just from Beersheba - actually, most come from outlying areas all over the South - Omer, Lahavim, Metar, Arad, Tel Sheva. Beersheba needed a place like this, a place where people can shop without driving into the city, where they can park close, not worry about stairs, and not have to go into a big indoor mall.
"We have a beautiful thing here in Beersheba - lots of sun and great weather. We wanted to take advantage of that, so people can walk directly into the stores. So to make it comfortable in summer, we put a roof over the walking areas. For merchants, OnePlaza offered a good deal. Because of the way we built, we were able to offer leases at least 30 percent less than indoor malls. That makes it good for everyone. It's working - every space is leased. We're at capacity."
Not that Oknin is finished. The frosting on this glittering cake is yet to come. In just a few weeks, a grand opening for 'Cinema City' will take place, offering 13 movie theaters and an IMAX, plus another 20 shops. Beersheba already has two small theater complexes, both located within high-rise malls. Again, Oknin is betting that in the South, people will prefer coming to movie theaters where they won't have to fight city traffic, park and hassle with an inside mall.
Even now, shop owners are vying for space in the new complex, including CafÃ© Hillel's Irit Badash. Even though her OnePlaza shop is relatively new, it's so successful that Badash is already looking for additional outlets. Her OnePlaza shop was the first CafÃ© Hillel in Beersheba, although other shops exist in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The decision to open CafÃ© Hillel grew out of her own love for coffee, Badash says. "I loved going to their Jerusalem store and drinking that wonderful coffee, so I decided I'd like to open a shop here. I live in Omer, so I went to the owners and asked to open here, in Beersheba. It took a long time, lots of work and interviews, but it happened. We opened with a lot of love in November."
CafÃ© Hillel was a hit from the beginning. "We're busy all day long, from 6:30 in the morning when I first open to serve just coffee, until midnight, every night. We're big on breakfasts - we serve breakfast all day long, up until we close. People also like our fresh salads, quiche, pasta - and of course, the coffee! That's the best.
With three daughters - ages 14, 11 and 4 - at home in Omer, Badash says she loves to cook herself, but rarely has time since the cafÃ© opened. "I have three great managers here and our customers are wonderful. People seem to be delighted with this place. It's fun to come to work."
The best place to get the inside scoop on OnePlaza is G-Point, a "comfort shop", says employee Mor Shaddi, also a Communications student at Sapir College. "G-Point offers a little of everything," Shaddi says, "snacks, drinks, cigarettes, all kinds of small things. The fun part is, this is where all the other workers from Center come to buy their snacks and drinks. So I hear just about everything that's going on."
One unfortunate topic of conversation at the moment is the proliferation of counterfeit bills, as Shaddi herself knows only too well. "I did it myself," she says, "I took fake money; a NIS 200 bill! I can't believe I did that - I'm usually so careful, and check each bill. This time? It was near the end of my shift, I was in a hurry, and I didn't check. So now I'm paying for it."
Shaddi keeps the bogus bill around to show, and clearly, anyone could have been fooled. The only discernible difference is that the fake bill feels as though it's made of a little heavier paper, but in other respects, it appears identical. But should she have to pay for it herself? Shaddi waves protests aside. "No, it's okay. It was my fault. I knew better. I should have checked and I didn't. That's fair - and you know what? I'll never forget to check again!"
One of OnePlaza's unique - only in Beersheba - places is Roni's, which has already become a local favorite. "I'm a mechanical engineer by profession," says owner Yeron Chen. "But I always dreamed of opening a restaurant. I finally decided to go ahead. I have a factory in Beersheba that produces stainless steel industrial equipment, so that's what I do in the morning. But in the afternoon and evening, I'm here, overseeing everything, talking to customers, making sure everything is going right."
Chen's affection for stainless steel shows throughout the restaurant. The kitchen is entirely stainless steel, he says. "I built it like a pharmacy, everything perfectly pure and clean. We even used stainless steel on the menu covers. They have a polished steel cover, with an 'R' cutout. Every month we change the actual menu, to reflect what our customers want, and they all fit inside the stainless cover."
What's the best thing on the menu? "One of our biggest sellers is a 'Roni Burger,' which is made from meat custom-ground especially for us, the highest quality. Fresh meat comes to us every day. We don't reuse anything - which means that everything is the best we can buy."
The wait staff is all students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. One - Yair Marnin, a social studies and business major - has been with Chen from the first days, working every day. "It's a great job," Marnin says. "We do a lot of creative things, fun stuff, like offering a special meat dish we named 'Dirty Dancing.' Remember the film? With Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey? That's what we call our chicken and meat dish, because on the wok, the chicken and meat dance together in the hot oil. It's very popular - that and the chicken salads, which are vegetables with teriyaki chicken."
Roni's is kosher and not open on Shabbat. "We serve breakfast on Friday mornings and reopen on Saturday night. We're still expanding," Chen says. "Just yesterday we installed this wooden bar, so people can sit there if they want, instead of outside or at inside tables."
The learning process affects everyone, and Chen and Marnin recall a few incidents with great delight. "During the first days, someone decided to put the fryer right underneath the fire sprinklers. So one morning I arrived, and the entire kitchen was drenched, water all over the place. I guess it was good," Marnin says. "At least we knew the sprinklers worked."
Another incident involved a new employee, hired as a dishwasher. "All he was supposed to do was wash dishes," Chen recalls, "but things were busy one day, and he was in the kitchen. One of the cooks told him to watch some oil that was heating in a pan on the stove, and to tell him when it started to bubble. So in Hebrew, the cook said, 'Put your eye - ayin - on the oil.' But that's not what the dishwasher heard. He thought he was told to put mayim - water - on the oil when it started to bubble! So he did, and of course it exploded - steam poured out of the kitchen, just billowing all over. It was pretty impressive for awhile. Everything was okay - no one was hurt, we just had to clean it up. Now we're a little more explicit about instructions."
All in all, making his dream of owning a restaurant is coming along just fine, Chen says. "I've got a great staff - seven employees - and we're doing well. OnePlaza is a great place to be."
There's no question about it: Local boy Mike Oknin is changing the face of his home town. "I was born in Beersheba and I still live here - although I spend some time in New York, too," Oknin says. "Right now at OnePlaza, we offer something for everyone. Lots of places to look and shop, sit, relax and enjoy good food with friends. But when the movie theaters open, we'll offer something for the soul, too. Beersheba is beautiful, and I think we're making it just a little bit better."
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