The fragrance of Aroma

An Israeli coffee bar makes a successful transatlantic crossing.

The fragrance of Aroma (photo credit: AROMA)
The fragrance of Aroma
(photo credit: AROMA)
The décor, from the overall black, white and red color scheme down to the menu fonts, looks instantly familiar to anyone who has ever stepped into any of Aroma’s 123 branches in Israel. Most of the menu offerings are also Aroma standard fare: the sahlab orchid-based hot drink alongside the cappuccinos and espressos; the rugalach Danish-type pastries and burekas, the shakshuka egg-and-tomato mix and a wide variety of sandwiches.
But this Aroma Espresso Bar branch is not in Petah Tikva or Beersheba. It is on Church Street near the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, one of four Aroma branches in New York City. Aroma also has a branch in New Jersey. There are also Aromas in Canada and Europe.
The chain is expanding at a rapid rate, with two more branches in Florida and one in the Washington, D.C. area scheduled to open by the end of 2012, bringing the total United States presence to nine branches with over 350 employees. Not bad for a company that started with a single small café in Jerusalem in 1994.
A bit further uptown, on Broadway, Max Brenner is serving its trademark chocolatebased dishes to a full house of customers.
Max Brenner is also an Israeli chain of restaurants with an international presence, which started as a small boutique chocolate shop in Raanana, near Tel Aviv, in 1996 and now has branches in Australia and Singapore in addition to New York, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Boston. Like Aroma, the interior decoration of Max Brenner branches, with its striking dark- and light-colored exposed pipes, looks the same whether in Tel Aviv or Manhattan.
Neither Aroma nor Max Brenner, which is a subsidiary of the Strauss Group, hides the fact that they are Israeli companies – Max Brenner’s shops in Australia have been targeted by pro-Palestinian protesters – but there is nothing in their branches that overtly identify them as Israeli. That is largely because they are each developing international brand names based on the quality of the food and service they are offering, rather than appealing to a niche Jewish or Israeli identified market.
“Most of our customers are not aware at all of an Israeli connection,” says Lior Yanay, Chief Operations Officer at Aroma’s New York headquarters. “Our customers like Aroma due to the Mediterranean twist, such as the burekas and halva pastries that we have.
You cannot find this anywhere else. That gives us uniqueness.”
The first Aroma was opened on Hillel Street in Jerusalem’s city center, in an area where it squared off against several competing cafés.
It distinguished itself by offering high-quality coffee, fresh pastries and ample room for customers to sit and chat over a hot drink, as in a traditional café, along with waiter-less counter-based service more reminiscent of a fast-food chain to ensure customers got their orders promptly with minimal fuss. “This is not just a place for coffee,” stresses Yair Marinov, Aroma’s Marketing VP in Israel.
“There is real food served at Aroma Espresso Bar, with a wide range of food available.”
The concept proved to be a winning one. By 2000, Aroma began to spread out of Jerusalem to virtually every corner of Israel via a franchise network, establishing itself as one of the most familiar Israeli café brands with a spurt of non-stop expansion. In 2006, the company decided to consider the possibility of an overseas branch.
Marinov says the first overseas Aroma in SoHo, New York in 2006 “was sort of an experiment to see if Aroma could even survive” outside of Israel. The company decided from the start that its branches would not be identifiably Israeli, but Marinov admits that it did not shy away from choosing a location “that is often visited by Israelis.” The idea was to entice Israelis already familiar with Aroma from back home to establish an initial customer base. That made New York, with its large Israeli émigré population and many Israeli tourist visitors, an obvious choice for testing the international waters.
The ploy worked and was later repeated when Aroma expanded to Florida, setting up first in an area where it could expect customers already familiar with the brand from Israel and New York to choose to dine at Aroma.
Now, as then, many of the ingredients going into the breads and coffees served at Aroma branches both in Israel and around the world are processed at the same location in Beit Shemesh before being shipped out.
Aroma’s expansion is based on new branches operated by independent franchisees. The Aroma HQ in the United States, located in New York, does not directly manage any of the Aroma branches. Its staff of three provides support and guidance and ensures that franchisees adhere to company guidelines.
Since the success of the chain ultimately depends on the skills of the individual operators, they are chosen carefully and trained by Aroma HQ.
“We talk to potential franchisees, explain to them about Aroma, in general, and Aroma in the USA, in particular,” says Yanay. “We go over the costs of building a store and talk to them about running it. If everything goes OK, they start working in our store in SoHo for six months, learning everything from scratch – managing busboys, dishwashers, barista, cashiers, and eventually managing the entire store. During that process, they learn how to run an Aroma store and solve problems that may occur.”
All franchisees must adhere to a uniform “look and feel” décor, waiter-less customer service and the Aroma menu. It is nearly identical to the Israeli menu, but some changes were introduced for an American customer base. “It had to be tweaked in several ways,” says Yanay. “For example, all the coffee is brewed American-style. If you don’t have this kind of coffee in America, no one will come.”
Other menu changes in America included adding Caesar salad and Turkey BLT, consisting of sliced turkey, turkey bacon, lettuce and tomatoes, which are not on the Israeli menu.
French toast is offered to American customers any time of day or night. “In America, it is not just for breakfast,” explains Marinov.
Yanay notes several aspects distinguishing Aroma’s American customers from the Israeli customers. “Here they really care about the story behind the food,” says Yanay, glancing over the lunchtime crowd at the Church Street branch in New York.
“They will ask where the coffee is from, including asking about which specific region in which it was grown and who was the farmer. They are environmentally focused in terms of recycling, or knowing that you offer organic products. For example, we offer organic milk to customers who want it.”
Israeli style
As Yanay moves among the employees behind the counter at the Aroma branch he exudes an Israeli-style mix of laid-back attitude alongside authoritativeness. He grew up on a small moshav near Tel Aviv and chose to study business at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya after completing his military service. “I took the international business courses taught in English, not in Hebrew,” says Yanay. “That was good now that I live and work in America.”
Yanay, having worked extensively with employees both in Israel and the United States, tells The Jerusalem Report that in his experience there are noticeable differences.
“In America the employees expect to come and do their job,” he says. “If you ask them to do something that is not in their job description, they might give you a hard time. In Israel, the employees are willing to take a lot of responsibility over the things you give them to do. If they encounter a problem they will try to find a solution themselves. Here, they will probably go to a manager and, if the managers don’t have the answer ready, they’ll probably come to us.”
In addition to Aroma US, there is a Canadian Aroma headquarters that is responsible for nine Aroma locations in the Toronto area, scheduled to increase to 12 within the next year. There are also Aroma branches in Europe, in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Romania and other countries. The Canadian office is entirely independent from the American office, as are European operations.
Not every successful Israeli restaurant chain has managed to penetrate the American market. Burgers Bar, a Jerusalem-based hamburger and chips chain, recently closed its American branch in Brooklyn. Burgers Bar declined to speak to The Report.
A management source in Burgers Bar, speaking off the record, blamed mismanagement by the franchisee for the failure of the Brooklyn branch and promised that Burgers Bar would soon make another attempt to open an American branch with a different franchisee.
Yanay advises any Israeli considering the leap to the American market to do a lot of market research first. “Check to see if your product fits the American consumer,” he says. “If not, check how you can twist it and tweak it to make it more American, because, otherwise, you just might lose your money.”