Sweet sensations

A look at the small firms that are building Israel's reputation as a land of milk, honey, and chocolate.

choco ronda 88 224 (photo credit: Aryeh Dean Cohen)
choco ronda 88 224
(photo credit: Aryeh Dean Cohen)
If Moses were to send Joshua, Caleb and the rest to spy out the Land of Israel today, the 12 men bringing back samples of Canaan's bounty might very well return with a cluster of chocolate, not grapes. From the Golan Heights (PriVillage) to Samaria (Best Bon-Bons at Moshav Tapuah) to the South (Mitzpe Ramon's Le Chocolat), local entrepreneurs are turning spare rooms, kitchens and industrial spaces into high-end chocolate emporiums, spurred by a burgeoning local appetite for their yummy creations. Indeed, over the past two years, Israelis' overall consumption of chocolate per capita has doubled. Local production of the stuff some of us can't ever get enough of has gone from 27 to 28 tons per year some five years ago to around 50,000 tons a year, while the import of raw chocolate has jumped from 2,000 tons to 5,000 in that period, according to Joel Abissera, CEO of the Basix Trade Company, an importer of industrial chocolate for gourmet businesses. Maybe it's no surprise that the Land of Milk and Honey is producing a yield that increasingly comes in white, milk or bittersweet. And it's come a long way from being remembered by Diaspora schoolchildren for producing gold-wrapped chocolate coins at Hanukka time, little pieces of whose covers often got stuck in your teeth. But it's not just that Metzupeh bar you bought at the checkout counter that's making such an impact locally. Israelis' taste in chocolate is becoming more selective, with about 1,000 tons of what we consume a year falling into the gourmet bracket, of which about 200 to 300 tons is produced locally, according to Abissera. That increasing demand has led to gourmet chocolate stands at weekend mall events, local gourmet chocolate shops or home or industrial-park based chocolatiers to multiply like Willie Wonka's oompa loompas. These chocolatiers often start out at home, experimenting with grandma's old recipes. But those modest beginnings have also given way to trips to Brussels or other European cities to study with the world's most renowned experts. As they expand, the chocolatiers are not only boosting their own skills and production levels, usually moving out of the house to a modest shop/factory and then perhaps to bigger quarters and more outlets, but passing them on to others via seminars and classes. The result is a ripple effect, stimulating greater interest in gourmet chocolate among consumers who previously only knew big producers like Elite, while planting the cacao seed in the minds of others like them to pursue a craft that for some marks a major switch in professional direction, but one that has more than met their very special needs. As Seattle-based food writer Sandra Andrews-Strasko, who spent a year here recently while her husband pursued rabbinical studies and used her time to do an exhaustive tour and series of interviews with local chocolatiers, says: "People who make chocolate here make it because they love it, not because their father owned a chocolate store." A visit to some of those people bore out that impression, and offered a window onto the delicious world they call work. BETWEEN THE dishwasher, fridge and microwave, Ronda Israel makes chocolate on Modi'in's Rehov Nahal Yarden, where she and her family are living out her Chocolate Dreams in her kitchen one flight below street level. The air-conditioning's broken downstairs, but that doesn't stop the unflappable Israel, who's parlayed her creativity and keen business sense into a going concern that came out of necessity but was something she and her husband Aaron never imagined they'd be doing when they immigrated from Highland Park, New Jersey, in 2000. Aaron, who was a management accountant, had been assured he'd find work here, but then "everything crashed" in the world economic markets, recalls Ronda as her chocolate tempering machine does its magic on the kitchen counter. With her husband out of work, Ronda, who was in ulpan, realized something had to be done. For inspiration, she turned to the grocery store. "The biggest part of the store was the chocolates," she recalls. "I never saw so much candy, chocolates - it was a big deal. Then you stand in line and the kids start screaming, and what do they hand them but those little Kinder bars. And what are they feeding infants in their bottles? Chocolate milk. I determined that this country was crazy about chocolate." Piqued by chocolate goodies a friend brought over a few times, when her ulpan teacher asked what she wanted to do with her life she looked around the steaming classroom "and all I could think of was ice cream. So I said I wanted to open a sweet shop, an ice cream store, like Baskin-Robbins." The former yeshiva administrator and educator "had had it with every parent thinking their child was brilliant in yeshiva" and "wanted to do something fun, creative - use my talent. I kept thinking about this chocolate my friend had made. And every time you mention chocolate in Israel, Israelis smile. So I said: Gosh, I'd love to be in something that makes people smile." Aaron was supportive, but insisted she come up with a business plan as she and her friend began dabbling in 2001 with chocolate creations in her apartment. "I didn't have a machine and I didn't know much about chocolate," Ronda, sporting milk-chocolate colored nail polish, recalls. Nonetheless they made cornflakes with chocolate and Chinese noodles with chocolate and fruit they called spiders, products she calls "my heimish gourmet chocolate. Because everyone loves heimish-y things, creative, yummy things. I'm not into truffles or chili pepper chocolate." Over Bubbe's Best Biscotti - available dipped in white, dark or plain parve chocolate - Israel remembers the early days, when she started out working to order. A little advertising and word of mouth and before long, her business was humming, especially after she, her daughter and friends created a Web site (www.chocolatedreamsco.com) featuring their dripping chocolate logo that allows visitors to see her creations, from chocolate kugel to chocolate roses (ordered by one bride and handed out to her guests) and buy them on-line. Her dream had become a reality. Today, "when I'm working regularly, especially for the holidays, I could work 24/7 around every holiday for weeks, weeks." Last Purim she did 100 kg. worth of chocolate. The dining room becomes packaging, the living room shipping and her husband and children pitch in, even though 16-year-old Michael doesn't even like chocolate. At least today the family has a car for deliveries, not like some years back, when an experiment with chocolate pizza turned out to be so popular with Aaron's boss, Ronda needed to make 50 more, in two days. "No problem," she told her husband, now a patent agent. "We schlepped them by bus, all of us - it was wild and everyone loved them," she recalls. Orders flow in from all over the world - some are kept on the fridge, next to the magnet that reads: "Stressed is just desserts spelled backwards" - including one special request from Iraq, where a US soldier wanted the Israels to send some of their chocolate to his wife in the Dominican Republic. "I wrote back to him and I'm thinking: This is not a Jewish guy, what does he want with kosher chocolate from Israel? He wrote back: 'No, I want to support Israel. I want to send your chocolates, they look nice.'" She not only filled the order, but sent the soldier and his buddies chocolate. But it's not only US soldiers who are thriving on Israel's goodies. When her own son Gideon went into the IDF, she wanted to bring something to his unit. After she saw the reaction to her chocolates, she set up "The Sweetest Mitzva" in which those interested can have a platter of chocolate sent to an IDF unit chosen by Israel in their name. "We can get into any base; I just show them the chocolate and they are in heaven," she laughs. She also has a special line of Jewish-related items, including chocolate tefillin she was lovingly applying to a white chocolate siddur. Unlike other chocolatiers I visited, Israel uses only Israeli chocolate, mostly out of patriotism. Business is good, and the Israels are contemplating either setting up a stand at the new Modi'in mega-mall or "a little shack somewhere, someplace unique... a chocolate boutique where people come and have desserts," like the one that came to her in ulpan class. Besides providing a direction when one was needed, Chocolate Dreams has allowed Israel to fulfill that side of herself that was dormant during her previous career, and she revels in now being known in the neighborhood as "The Chocolate Lady," whose products sometimes allow buyers to even eat the dishes. Showing what she's learned since making aliya, Israel's advice for those considering a home chocolate business is to be "persistent, take no as a suggestion and not as a definite answer, and you have to have a lot of dreams, chocolate dreams." FINDING YAEL Milstain's Shokolada is like looking for that last chocolate covered cherry in the box: a lot of trial and error. But once you find it, it's worth the search. The Shokolada storefront and factory is a shiny gem amid a warren of aluminum workshops and woodworkers at an Afek industrial park near Rosh Ha'ayin. It's sort of like Milstain's life, which began up one avenue, and then took a turn down another that offered a good fit at one of life's challenging junctions. The chocolate seeds had already been planted, in Milstain's case by her grandmother - and the army. "Since I can remember I've been crazy about chocolate," says Milstain, 44, sitting in the large workshop room adjoining her main entrance. "My grandmother was apparently a closet chocolatier and my partner in this. My father was in the army, so he used to bring home all this chocolate the soldiers received. We couldn't eat it all, so she simply started playing with it, making spreads and cakes and cookies, or chocolate on a stick. Once a week she'd come to our house or I'd go to hers and we'd play with the chocolate. I started at about six or seven; before that they'd let me lick the bowl." Despite growing up with a chocolate thumb, Milstain started out in another career, studying to be a graphic artist, but at 39, her life was jolted in a different direction. "I contracted breast cancer and that gave me the understanding at last that I should do what I really wanted to and make an old dream come true," she explains. "It was a real second chance, a great privilege given to me, and I grabbed it with both hands. I started studying here and continued in Belgium." Surrounded by her three kids, she started working at home, selling at Friday food markets that have become so popular across the country and boosted the chocolatiers' ranks. "After a while, one of the kids said: 'If there's one more carton, you'll have to get rid of one of us, because there's no more room left in the house.'" It was time for her own shop, to be based on what she'd seen while studying abroad, "where in the back they would make the chocolate and in the front it would be sold, always fresh - everything open so you can see what you buy is what was made," says Milstain, describing the format for many of the combined small chocolate factory/storefronts popping up around the country, usually the next step after a home business beginning. Walking into the candy production area with Milstain is more like entering a chemistry lab, and indeed she and two of her co-workers wear what look like lab coats in the sleek, modern-looking room, examining the white, bittersweet and milk chocolate still being processed in the tempering machines. These machines bring about the necessary process of crystallization, allowing chocolatiers to work with the gooey stuff, which was still tantalizingly clinging to the machines, making it difficult to resist running over and licking it off. Actually, there is a laboratory feel to the very exact nature of the chocolatier's craft, visible in the trio's efforts to work on a series of chocolates made with molds on which they were "operating." Ron Shmuely, Milstain's assistant, lovingly dripped a decorative drop of bittersweet chocolate onto one praline, while Milstain described the process of filling one as "like doing open heart surgery." Working with chocolate is sort of like being one of the Seven Dwarfs, at least according to Shmuely. "Even if you're feeling blue, you just take a little taste and immediately you feel better." They're happy to turn out about 500 kg. a month of the stuff. "I love working with the substance itself. It has incredible sex appeal," says Milstain, looking lovingly at her creations. Just a few short steps away from the "lab" is the actual shop, an attractive series of displays featuring anything from truffles to nougat squares to chocolate liqueur to nuts dipped in chocolate to chocolate-scented candles, along with her own favorite creation: almond porcupines, shaped like the creature but with a more delectable sting. A single praline costs NIS 4.5, a box NIS 22. She's opened a new shop in Ra'anana, and dreams of doing the same in New York's Soho one day. Her only regret is that her grandmother can't see her success, though she often feels "she's here with me someplace saying: "Keep going, keep going." THE SWEETEST thing in the Choconoy chocolate factory/shop isn't the hand-made pralines, the chocolate lollipops or the truffles made with 63% chocolate solids. It's the smiles of Yuval Noy and his co-workers, whose cheery presence is tangible proof that love can overcome almost any challenge. Indeed, working at the ultra-modern, mid-sized plant at a Netanya industrial park, representative of the next step up in Israeli boutique chocolate-making from the smaller storefront run by Milstain and a quantum leap from Israel's kitchen, is more than just another job to Yuval, Lea and Chana. It's opened up an entire world for the three young people with special needs, whose laughter in the factory kitchen lights up the hearts of all visitors, but particularly those of Yuval's parents and Choconoy's founders, Yaffa and Moty Noy. It's easy to spot the autistic Yuval. He greets you at the entrance wearing his Choconoy black baseball cap, anxious to know who you've come to see and to proudly show you around, his arm around your shoulder. His favorite tasks are manning the cash register, taking money to the bank or telling Moty how to better market the place, which led to him "firing" his dad recently. It was Yuval who insisted the factory have a time clock, because that made it a "serious" workplace. But work wasn't always fun for him. The 31-year-old had a bleak employment history, and was treated badly at a mattress factory and other places which were "not good and an embarrassment," says Moty. Determined to give Yuval a better life, the Noys found a mouth-watering answer to the problems facing their son and others like him: a chocolate factory where they could work under better conditions and grow to their full potential. Besides betting that there was a niche for quality chocolate, the couple reasoned that "because we were opening a business that was going to be staffed by young people with special needs, that would connect people to something positive. The girls are great workers, and they have the feeling that they are doing something, that they have some worth," says Yaffa, as Lea and Chana worked on making chocolate lollipops with chocolatier Amalia. While turning out high quality chocolates on a more massive scale, along with a wide range of other products, is their business, "we're not your average chocolatier who dreamed of chocolate, loved the stuff and were inspired to do something with it. This factory was created to provide a workplace for Yuval and others with special needs," declares Moty. "It's important to us that these people be treated as important people, with their limitations and needs and problems. That they not be treated differently, that they find an answer to all kinds of difficulties they encounter. These are people who haven't worked before for all kinds of reasons. Both girls have been home for long periods. Such people tell you the hardest thing for them is that they don't have any reason to get up in the morning. They have no clue what to do with their time - what can they be feeling? Here they have a reason to get up to come to work every morning," says Yaffa, a former social worker who created a framework with the help of the Hadera rehabilitation center, which supplies her with workers when she has openings. She also arranges special enrichment programs for the workers, like trips to museums. The Noys hired advisers to help them build the plant, which opened in 2002, and teach them how to prepare some of the more than 30 recipes that account for the long line of pralines greeting visitors to the shop in the front part of the factory. And more often than not, repeat customers ask for Yuval or Lea or Chana to show them around. "It gives these people with special needs a chance to interact with the world out there, which is a great success," says Moty, who describes his joy at hearing Yuval singing every day on his way to work. But while there may be an overriding principle guiding Choconoy, there's still chocolate to be made, and they do it exceedingly well and with incredible craftsmanship. Choconoy uses only the freshest materials, like honey brought straight from the hive, and fresh ginger, coconut, passion fruit, apricots and cinnamon along with burning their own sugar to make caramel. Recently, Time Out Tel Aviv magazine rated their chocolates the best in the country. Achieving that rating isn't easy. The pralines are produced using a process called enrobing, where first the filling is made and then it's covered with chocolate. They pass from marble tables to frames to special iron plates to wagons before a special slicing machine cuts them into squares. Then they head for the sweetest bath around: a track where they're covered by a computerized faucet that drips chocolate, allowing for a thick or thin coating, which Lea and Chana were busy loading while scooping out the remainder. "It's great fun to know I'm waking up in the morning and going to work with chocolate," says Chana, 27, who's been working at Choconoy for four years. "For two years I was home and didn't have a place to work. This place gives me everything I didn't have: to be with people, and a job. When I was home, I always felt alone. This place only makes me feel good." "Everyone enjoys our chocolate," adds Lea. One girl who came to work at the plant didn't speak for the first year. "We thought she was mute," says Yaffa. "After a year, when she gained some confidence, she started to speak, and her posture improved, and we discovered she had a sense of humor, and she made us laugh." A little later, Chana and Lea were using transparencies to place the "Choconoy" stamp on top of the pralines, or decorating them by hand. "The computerized coating process lets us monitor the thickness of the chocolate that covers the filling," notes Yaffa. "When you do enrobing, your teeth bite through a very thin layer of chocolate and you immediately encounter the filling. It allows you to better enjoy the texture of what you're eating... The most important thing is to do it with love. If you do something with love, they come out much better than if you just do it." The Noys have expanded their creations into more than just chocolate. Customized gift boxes for their treats adorn their factory-front store, separated from the production lines by a glass door that allows shoppers to peer inside. The special boxes include one reading "Happy Birthday, Mom," featuring the entire family or mom herself on the box, with technology developed by Choconoy allowing for branding the boxes the chocolate comes in with full-color pictures, or for putting a company logo on the chocolate itself. But while ideas may be plentiful, Yaffa and Moty fear it's not enough and worry whether they can keep their unique project going. For while there's lots of goodwill out there towards the plant, it has a tendency to melt away when it comes to making firm financial commitments. "Our goal was to create a model that would employ 10 to 15 people, a model for other places of employment which also wanted to help the community at large, but also produce a good product," says Moty. "From the standpoint of providing a place of employment for people like Yuval and the others, it succeeded 100 percent... It's an international success, people from all over the world come to visit. From the standpoint of a business, we can always use more orders." Like other local chocolatiers who've ridden the current wave of popularity to achieve success but are facing a crossroads, the Noys know they must expand their market to keep going. Now they are seeking a "strategic partner" to help take their product overseas, and would like to target Jewish communities in the US. More orders would allow the Noys to take on more special-needs employees, and ensure they continue turning out their most important products. "People ask me if am I making a profit," says Moty. "I tell them I make a profit as soon as these people have work and I can put a smile on their face and make their lives better - that's my profit."