From the market to the supermarket

Rami Levy has come a long way since he worked in his grandfather's store in the shuk.

Every week, Sara Cohen drives at least 20 minutes from her Gush Etzion home to Jerusalem just to do her weekly supermarket shopping at the Rami Levy Hashikma Market in Talpiot. Though her hometown of Efrat has two fully-stocked supermarkets, and there are numerous others in the Gush Etzion area, all of her friends do the same. "It's just so much cheaper," she explains simply. "The other day I ran out of laundry detergent and I went to pick it up here and it was NIS 45. For the exact same brand and size bottle I pay NIS 25 at Rami Levy. You expect at different supermarkets a difference of three, four or even five shekels an item, but NIS 20 is pretty bad!" Her neighbor, who also makes the trip to Rami Levy once or even twice a week, agreed, and added that the supermarket also boasted a much larger selection of food items. "I can find everything I need in one place," she says. "So though it's sometimes inconvenient to drive out there, especially when there's traffic, it's always worth it." That seems to be the consensus among most Rami Levy shoppers, and, says the man behind the market, that was exactly the idea. Sitting in his luxurious offices above the original and somewhat rundown Rami Levy supermarket on Rehov Ha'oman in Talpiot, Rami Levy, 51, says the idea came to him from spending time in the Mahaneh Yehuda market in downtown Jerusalem. His grandfather had a shop there on Rehov Hashikma - hence the name Rami Levy Hashikma Market - that he rented out to wholesale food vendors who sold in bulk to supermarkets and restaurants. After he finished the army, the Jerusalem-born Levy spent a lot of his time walking around the shuk, and came to realize the potential of opening a store that sold wholesale items on an individual basis. "People used to come into these stores and ask for just one or two of the items, and it always bothered the owners because they only sold in bulk," says Levy. So in 1976, he took over his grandfather's shop to open his own. "It was the first real store in Israel to sell dry wholesale food items to people instead of other stores." Within a year, Levy bought out the store next door to expand his shop and within two years, he had bought storage facility in Givat Shaul from which he also sold wholesale food items in bulk to other stores. In 1990, he opened his first supermarket in Talpiot and from there just kept going - now he has eight supermarkets nationwide, including in Modi'in and Ma'aleh Adumim and three in Talpiot, with plans to open one near Kiryat Malachi and one for the haredi sector in Beitar. "THE CUSTOMER is very important to me," says Levy, adding that he often argues with his suppliers to sell their products at cheaper prices, and that if he sees a supplier raising the prices for no apparent reason, he will temporarily stop using them - as he says he once did with Coca-Cola and Osem. "We get by on a very small profit," adds Levy. "We give the best prices and the best service, and we succeed because we are meticulous. When people trust you, they'll keep coming back." He explains his triumph over other supermarkets by his lower operational costs, due in part to the fact that Rami Levy avoids the unnecessary expenses of positions like director-general or deputy director-general. He also points out that a significant difference between Rami Levy and other supermarkets stems from his experience in building his own business. "I started from the very bottom, so I know the work from the bottom to the top," says the man who can be found vacuuming the floors of his supermarkets himself once in a while, because "when you start a business from the beginning, you invest your heart and soul." In fact, every one of his supermarkets also has a modern synagogue, named in honor of his father and grandfather, so that the customers and workers have a place to pray when they so desire, explains Levy, whose family is masorti. Levy also donates food from his supermarkets to 6,000 families every year before Rosh Hashana and Pessah, and makes contributions to yeshivot, soup kitchens and local impoverished families, he says. But while the supermarket business may be his most famous venture, it isn't his only undertaking. Levy also runs a Jerusalem real-estate company and a wholesale clothing store chain called Yafiz, operated by his daughter Yafit on the same principle as the supermarket - the best product for the cheapest price. The Gilo resident also serves on the city council together with Nir Barkat, whom he had hoped would be voted in as mayor. As part of the opposition, Levy says his ability to make any great changes is minimal, but he says he still hopes to help develop industry in Jerusalem. Municipality council members, however, have complained of Levy's lack of participation in municipal affairs and poor attendance at meetings of which he is a committee member. "You hardly ever see him around the municipality," says one city council member. "He doesn't stand out. People who stand out in the city council are the people who try to make a difference, and what's most important to him is his business, not the city." Rumors of shady business deals surround the self-made mogul, including alleged arnona (property tax) debt and a lack of building and construction permits for some of his property. Levy denies any arnona debt, and says he would never build without the necessary construction permits - "of course not, I'm a city councilman," he adds. He elaborates that in the case of his supermarket in Mevaseret that was temporarily closed down recently, he only discovered the irregularity after he had already rented the place, and was now in the process of dealing with it. But overall, says another council member, Levy has more friends than enemies in the municipality. "He's a nice guy," says the council member. "But he's a bit of a mystery to us because on the one hand, he's a very common man, but on the other hand, he's had great successes in business." As a boy, Levy says he always knew he wanted to open up a business, and recalls renting out his own bicycle to neighborhood children for a fee when he was 11. From that point on, he says, he started to think like a businessman. Today, he employs 1,300 people in all of his enterprises, including his wife and brothers, who work alongside him, and says he doesn't have much time to do anything but work, from as early as six in the morning until 1 or 2 a.m. most nights. But though approaching retirement age, Levy insists he has no plans to stop anytime soon. "I want to keep developing," he says. "I derive happiness from creating places of business, creating a profit and creating jobs for people. Ultimately, I just want to know that I'm helping the community."