Israeli bars let liquor flow cheaply to satisfy Anglo demand

Bars aimed at offering cheap alcohol are popping up around Israel, to the delight of booze-guzzlers from abroad.

Drink Point. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Drink Point.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is nowhere to sit at the Cofix Bar on Tel Aviv’s Herzl Street. There’s no need, really.
The bar, nested within the discount coffee shop that sought to overturn the coffee market, is not a place to spend the night chatting or dance. Its main purpose instead is to sell booze to people who want a buzz on the cheap. Like its caffeinated counterpart, the bar lists everything on the menu for NIS 5, whether cups of beer, shots of Jim Beam or bar nuts.
The Cofix Bar is just one of a slew of new establishments that have popped up in Israel in the past two years attempting to disrupt the bar scene, where alcohol is notoriously expensive.
They cater to an evolving culture of drinking in Israel, but also to a community of students, tourists and olim (immigrants) from countries with much stronger drinking cultures.
“For tourists it’s a dream,” says Yossi Mautner, co-owner of HaMezeg Bar in Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv.
The two-year-old bar was the first to offer a now-ubiquitous model of unlimited drinks. Customers pay a flat fee for one of several unlimited options (e.g.
only wine, only liquor, only top shelf), and get a corresponding colored bracelet. For the rest of the night, they can drink without worrying about the damage to their wallet.
“We knew there would be a lot of tourists. Tourists love it, because unlimited drinking is a million times more worth it than for Israelis,” Mautner says.
“The Israeli crowd doesn’t like drinking as much. But it likes getting a good deal.”
It only take two drinks to make the unlimited option “worth it.” The low-shelf-quality unlimited option, for example, costs only NIS 70, whereas a typical gin and tonic runs about NIS 44 per drink.
In an informal count he did last year, Mautner said there were already 25 copy-cat bars using the model, not including two he and his partners started up, Biggy Z (Bograshov Street) and Tangier (Yehuda Halevi Street). He estimated that 10-15% of customers were foreign, whether from the roughly 3,000 Americans who study abroad in Israel each year, the 40,000-strong crowd of Birthright Israel travelers, young olim, or other tourists.
All of the establishments in question pointed to buying power as the key to offering low prices. By buying alcohol from suppliers in bulk, they managed to get better prices than a typical bar, making it more profitable to run a chain, or a series of related restaurants.
Drink Point, a discount bar chain, has proved so popular that it has franchised nearly 30 branches in the 20 months since it opened its doors. It will open two branches in Jerusalem in the coming months.
“I live off the Americans, unquestionably. They look for the fun, the alcohol and the good times, and I aim for the young crowd,” says Drink Point owner and founder Omer Gafri.
“The students and the delegation and Americans, I owe them at least 30% of the success of this business.”
In the scheme of things, Israelis don’t drink much. A 2011 study by the World Health Organization found that Israelis consumed, on average, just 2.89 liters of alcohol a year. For Americans, the figure was over triple that amount, at 9.44 liters, while typical British and French people drank over 13 liters annually. It is perhaps not surprising that many of Israel’s microbreweries, such as Jems and Dancing Camel, and boutique alcohol businesses, such as the Milk and Honey Distillery, were started by immigrants from these countries.
But even in Israel, the culture of drinking has developed at a staggering pace.
In 2009, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called the growing culture of drinking an “epidemic,” noting that consumption had jumped 15% in three years.
“When I was growing up, nobody knew the word ‘pub’ in Israel. In the ‘90s they started popping up on every corner in Tel Aviv, and then they started putting open bars in at weddings,” says Yossi Harel-Fisch, chief scientist of the Israel Anti- Drug and Alcohol Authority.
Harel-Fisch is worried by youth drinking, in particular.
Self-reported binge drinking jumped from 6% among 11- to 15-year-olds in 1984 to 21% in 2009. Even more perniciously, moderate drinking has started far earlier as a form of socializing.
The level of 11-year-olds who drank “moderately” nearly tripled in the same period.
“Once people went out and would drink some alcohol. Now the aim of going out is to drink,” he said.
Along with drinking comes a slew of unwanted consequences: increases in violence, date rape, unwanted pregnancies and so on.
Concern for increased binge drinking has led to reforms, such as open beverage laws, banning alcohol sales from stores after 11 p.m., and empowering police to act against public and underage drinking. The Finance Ministry has lobbed new taxes on beer and altered the taxation method on spirits, making the cheapest stuff more expensive.
For Harel-Fisch, the trend of new bars promoting inexpensive and free-flowing alcohol “throws a wrench in the wheels of what we are doing.”
“It’s a very a grave phenomenon, because it goes exactly in the opposite direction of all the efforts we’re making in order to reduce the dangerous, irresponsible level of drinking, especially in young people,” he said. He is considering initiating legislative action to regulate such establishments.
The bar owners, however, see their establishments as a response to the high cost of living.
“People don’t have money. It’s insane to sell a half-liter of beer to people for NIS 30, especially people who live in Tel Aviv, work hard and have to deal with the high price of apartments,” says Aya Leshem, manager and partner at Biggy Z. “Here they can really drink at a price that’s fair for every pocket.”
In Mautner’s view – tourists aside – his customers know their limits.
“The Jewish mother is always on your shoulder,” he says. “It’s very seldom for people to be drunk. They like to drink moderately.”