Why are Israelis so into hummus?

Fast food in Israel

• From the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, Israel has to look a bit like the Gallic village of Asterix: a small rebellious place that defies the invasion of the apparently invincible coffee shop empire. The company has around 23,000 branches around the world; it is confident enough to open its first branch in Italy, the home of espresso, soon. In 2003 it had to withdraw defeated from Israel alone, "with its tail between its legs," as an Israeli radio journalist noted with satisfaction.

The coffee giant also stumbled in Australia. But all he has given up is the Israeli market. The idea of ​​expanding into Israel came to Starbucks boss Howard Schultz during a visit to Jerusalem, and according to media reports, he took the subsequent failure personally. So it will be no consolation for him that he is in good company: a whole series of American gastro chains have failed in Israel.

Wendy’s, a hamburger chain, opened several branches in Israel in the late 1980s, only to close them a few years later.

Subway: opened in 1992, closed in 2004.
Kentucky Fried Chicken: opened in 1993, closed in 2013.
Hard Rock Cafe: opened in 1993, closed in 1997.
Dunkin ’Donuts: opened in 1996, closed in 2001.
Burger King: opened in 1993, closed in 2010.
The company recently ventured into a fresh start, the outcome uncertain.

At first glance, these failures are a mystery: the cultural and personal ties between Israel and the United States are close, many Israelis have relatives there, and American films and music are easily conquering the Israeli market. Then why do fast-food restaurants that have won over people from Dubai to Brazil, from Russia to Tanzania, have such a hard time in Israel?

The companies are reluctant to talk about their failures: Starbucks speaks of "continuous operational challenges in the market", Subway blames "specific challenges in product procurement and logistics". So you have to look elsewhere for reasons.

Starbucks' belly landing was analyzed most thoroughly by journalists and economic experts, probably because in this case the expectations were particularly high - fueled by the company itself: Starbucks would “set new standards in Israeli coffee culture,” announced Mark McKeon, then President of Starbucks in the near East. The company's goal was to become the largest coffee shop chain in the country in Israel. This sense of mission was the first in a series of mistakes. “They didn't just come to Israel, they started an invasion,” recalls Gil Hovav, an influential Israeli restaurant critic, television host, and cookbook author. “You were very arrogant. The Israelis said: We will see. "

Oops, here we come! And goodbye

This chutzpah may have contributed to Starbucks underestimating the local coffee market. In the first decades after its founding, Israel was a largely socialist country with "independent cafes serving medium to low quality coffee," writes economist Avner Barnea in a study of the case. But in the 1980s the country opened up to the global economy. Salaries rose, people traveled the world and brought new products with them, including Italian coffee. By the time Starbucks arrived, several local cafe chains were already selling high-quality Italian coffee, often cheaper than the Americans.

Starbucks picked the most expensive locations and did not recognize the problems in time. It didn't help that it chose the Delek Group as its local partner, a holding company with no experience in catering. However, the decisive factor was taste. "They brought their American brand to Israel one-to-one and thought that would be enough for us to come and buy," says Tamir Ben Schachar, who runs a business consultancy and has advised several Israeli café and hamburger chains. “But the Israeli consumer likes Italian coffee better than American.” 87 percent of the Israeli Starbucks customers that Barnea asked for his study described the quality of the coffee offered there as “bad” or “very bad”.

Italians are considered the greatest coffee snobs. But perhaps that title really belongs to the Israelis. “The Wi-Fi at Starbucks is great, the design appealing, the service okay,” says restaurant critic Hovav. “Unfortunately they just serve this gray water. When I am abroad, I go to Starbucks because I want to go online. But then I drink tea. "

The question of what makes good coffee is debatable. But the Israeli market is difficult for any international company, also for objective reasons. On the one hand, there is the size: Israel has only 8.5 million inhabitants, and many of them live on the periphery. “Purchasing power is concentrated in Tel Aviv, parts of Jerusalem and Haifa,” says Hovav. It is not worth opening a burger joint in a remote small town.

In addition, fast food chains in Israel cannot score with the price that attracts many customers in other countries. Because in Israel food is very expensive compared to other industrialized countries, while purchasing power is comparatively low. The result: "A meal at McDonald’s, for example, can cost as much as a meal in a mid-range restaurant," according to an analysis by Euromonitor International, a London-based market research company.

In addition to demographic and economic problems, there are cultural ones: many Israelis adhere to Jewish dietary laws. The prohibitions to mix milk and meat and to consume pork are only the best known, but there are still quite a few. Some are also relevant to Muslims, a fifth of the Israeli population.

Restaurants and supermarkets can and do legally offer non-kosher products, especially in Tel Aviv. But they are foregoing potential customers. If you want to achieve this, you have to apply for a kosher seal from the chief rabbinate, which is time-consuming and expensive. According to a report by the Israeli finance ministry, kosher regulations are responsible for three percent of the costs in the food industry. In addition, the food rules are not applied equally strictly everywhere, and the price for the award of the seal varies between different locations.

The system has many critics. One of them is Yonathan Peleg. He represents an initiative called Haschgacha Pratit, which awards alternative kosher labels. “The restaurants are at the mercy of the rabbinate's auditors: they alone decide what is kosher and how much it costs,” he says. The monthly fee can be several thousand euros, depending on the size and location of the business.

Haschgacha Pratit interprets the dietary laws just as strictly, but awards its certificates more cheaply, according to Peleg. Still, only 30 restaurants use the alternative labels. And in June Israel's Supreme Court ruled that alternative certificate providers should not use the word "kosher". "Every revolution costs time," says Peleg. But in order to reach the majority of religious customers, restaurants can hardly avoid the official seal for the time being.

The greatest competition: private chefs

Another hurdle for fast food chains: "Israel is a nation of salad eaters." That says Janna Gur, editor-in-chief of a food magazine, who has written a book about modern Israeli cuisine. In an OECD study that compares the average consumption of vegetables among adults, Israel ranks sixth, Germany ranks third from last. While households in Germany spend most of their food budgets on meat and fish, Israelis spend most of their money on fruit and vegetables.

They also prefer to be at the stove at home than at the snack bar. “Cooking is considered an ideal,” says Janna Gur. “And the people are very family-oriented: eating together is important.” Many secular and western Israelis also gather for the traditional Sabbath dinner on Friday evening. These are often noisy, lively events with an overabundance of self-prepared meals that drag on into the late hours of the evening. In contrast, there cannot be a “Family Action Pack” (Burger King) or a “Family Favorites Dinner Box” (McDonald’s).

And yet there is one exception in the history of the failed catering corporations: McDonald’s. The company has established itself as the only American hamburger chain in Israel and now has 183 branches. The key to this, writes the economist Barnea in his Starbucks study, lies in successful "glocalization": McDonald’s adapts its products to local tastes, for example seasoning the meat more strongly and grilling many products. In addition, almost a third of the branches are kosher.

In February of this year, Burger King started a second attempt. It is still too early to judge whether the company can make a similar adjustment. The first signs are skeptical. There is only one visible concession to the local food culture on the menu: the veggie burger with falafel. Behind it is a pale bread roll, which one would advise to go into the scorching Israeli sun, and a soft, almost tasteless falafel that, apart from its name, has little in common with the crispy, spicy chickpea balls that are sold on every corner.

There was fast food here before it was called that

This is probably the biggest hurdle: Israel's own fast food culture, rooted in the region, older than the state itself. Its three pillars are hummus, falafel and shawarma, the Arab-Israeli variant of doner kebab. If there is still a consensus in the politically, religiously and culturally divided Israeli society, then it is the love of hummus, the heavy, oily chickpea pulp.

"Most Israelis prefer this traditional street food to hamburgers," says Janna Gur. When Dunkin ’Donuts entered the market in 1996, it was literally a saturated market. "Israelis have their own very good baked goods," says Gur. "Dunkin 'Donuts was just too sweet, too American for the local taste."

Now every country in the world has its own culinary preferences. But Israelis seem to hold onto their own more than people elsewhere. Certainly all kinds of anthropological explanations could be found for this. But there is an easier - and, indeed, tastier - way of exploring the phenomenon. It leads to Jaffa, in the historical south of Tel Aviv, and runs through the tourist district with its fish restaurants and posh boutiques to an inconspicuous residential area. There, on a warm autumn lunchtime, dozens of people crowd in front of a small corner bar: Jews, Arabs and tourists. They're all standing in line at Abu Hassan, a legendary hummus restaurant that hummus blogs (yes, there is such a thing) praised in the sky.

The tightly packed tables in the narrow interior are occupied to the last seat. There is no menu, and why: there are only three varieties of hummus to choose from, served with pita bread and raw onions. The waiters whirl around the room, shouting Arabic commands to each other and slamming the metal bowls on the table. Those who have eaten are more or less subtly urged to make room for the next guests. Nobody seems to care.

“Our specialty is that we don't change,” says Hani Karawan, the 33-year-old landlord. His grandfather Ali Karawan, nicknamed Abu Hassan, sold the first hummus 60 years ago. “We still use his recipe: chickpeas, tahini and a few spices.” Officially, the place is open until 3 p.m., but it often closes earlier: when the hummus runs out prematurely.

The same time of day, another day, another place: Rabin Square in the center of Tel Aviv. Here is the town hall, bars, cafes and restaurants line the square, it is a hub for locals and tourists, in short: a very good location for a fast food restaurant. Burger King opened the first of its new branches here in February. The restaurant is painted in warm yellow and orange tones, with an eighties hit playing in the background. Nobody yells like at Abu Hassan. However, nobody is standing in line. Between two guests, the staff at the counter have time to write text messages. At one o'clock on this weekday, a maximum of a quarter of the tables is occupied.

"The King is Back", posters had announced in bold letters at the beginning of the year. As if the newcomer didn't know he was moving into the kingdom of the chickpeas. ---