An employee prepares coffee at the original Sicaffe espresso bar in the Ramat Hahayal neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Whether it’s the business world in Tel Aviv or New York City, productivity and success demand long hours and high levels of energy – and so the rich black fuel that both cities depend on is good, strong coffee.
That fuel is particularly tasty in the original Sicaffe espresso bar in the Ramat Hahayal neighborhood of Tel Aviv and, now in its offspring in the Wall Street and Upper East Side neighborhoods of Manhattan; a third branch will be opening in the coming weeks in the midtown Garment District.
Sicaffe, like many Israeli espresso bars, has taken the coffee establishment to another level, offering a special blend of rich Italian espresso, the central ingredient in a variety of coffee drinks, accompanied by delicate wraps and hearty sandwiches, and tempting flaky pastries.
These bustling establishments are the handiwork of Emil and Elmar Yosufov -an entrepreneurial pair of brothers who immigrated to Israel with their parents from Azerbaijan in 1994.
They opened their first shop in 1997, when Ramat HaHayal was still primarily a residential neighborhood – before the tall buildings housing Israel’s leading high tech and media companies and television studios were built, and the other coffee places, sushi bars, and restaurants moved in.
“My brother, who loves coffee, had the idea to open a coffee shop from the time we arrived here,” Elmar told ISRAEL21c. “He saw that the really rich Italian coffee hadn’t taken hold here yet.”
Emil, now 38, and Elmar, 35, went on a pilgrimage to Italy, traveling north from Rome on a mission to find the best coffee.
“Our final stop was Trieste, and at the last place we visited there, we found a coffee company called Sandali,” says Emil in a phone conversation from New York. “And it was the best.”
Baby-faced, looking a decade younger than his age, Elmar sits in the Ramat HaHayal establishment. In the center of both stores, in a place of honor, is a massive coffee grinder with canvas sacks full of beans shipped from Trieste proudly inscribed with the name ‘Sandali.’
The place is full of chic-looking twenty and thirty-somethings who work in the high tech and media offices in the neighborhood – including some famous faces like Olympic medal winner-turned businesswoman Yael Arad.
Both the Tel Aviv and New York stores feature Sandali coffee as the basis of special concoctions that are the specialty of Trieste. In the original Tel Aviv store, all of the baked goods are made fresh on the premises, using recipes from Italy. In New York, real estate limitations have made that impossible until now. In the meantime, the brothers buy from the best bakeries they can find but Emil says he hopes to eventually change that and “bring the New York store up to the standard of Tel Aviv.”
Espresso bars like Sicaffe, and the many other high-quality establishments that mushroomed across Israel in the late 1990s are the main reason why Starbucks failed so resoundingly when the chain entered the local market in 2003. The homegrown Israeli chains had gotten a generation of Israeli yuppies expecting high-quality Italian coffee and fresh baked goods – and Starbuck’s offerings simply didn’t measure up.
“Israelis had gotten used to something better,” said Emil.
“The Israeli customer is incredibly demanding, regarding the quality of his coffee and the food served with it,” added Elmar. “Starbucks just wasn’t good enough.”
“The Israeli customers want the highest level of freshness and quality regarding their coffee and the food. I haven’t rushed to open a lot of branches of Sicaffe in Israel, because I know that the quality would suffer. We’re better off expanding in New York and improving the level of espresso bars there.”
New York magazine agrees, calling Sicaffe “a suave Italian chain” – mistakenly identifying the nationalities of its owners.
The magazine wrote that “the signature espresso drink, the cappuccino Triestino, is close to the ideal – a syrupy shot of rich espresso, a righteous tuft of silky foam – and all the sweet, bitter, smooth components are as well balanced as a Cirque du Soleil tightrope artist.”
The Yosufov brothers have roots in the food and beverage trade – their family owned a number of businesses, including restaurants, in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. Entrepreneurship is in their blood.
“Our family was always business-oriented. We can’t really sit in one place – we are always looking around for something else to do,” laughs Elmar.
Their choice of the espresso bar niche turned out to be timely – despite the security situation in the wake of the intifada and the economic slump that followed the burst of the first high tech bubble. Meeting for coffee either socially or for a business date is something that Israelis always manage to find time to do.
“It’s still a relatively cheap item. Even in an upscale place, a cup of coffee and a sandwich isn?t the same as a meal in an expensive restaurant. And you get the high-quality experience at the low price,” Elmar notes.
Other owners of Israeli chains concur with the brothers regarding the high standards of Israeli customers. Gabi Kaufman, marketing manager for the chain Café Hillel told the newspaper Ha’aretz that Israelis have developed expectations that combine “Italian coffee, German bread, French pastries, and American management.”
While Sicaffe is expanding its firm footing in the United States, other Israeli chains are beginning to venture overseas
The Arcaffe chain, which has 26 branches in Israel, has joined with high-profile bakers and chefs in France, and is about to open a second branch in the Galleries Lafayette department stores in Paris.
While no final deals have been signed, three other chains – Aroma, Café Hillel and Cup o’Joe, which have all, until now, focused on expanding their Israeli operations are reported to be in talks with partners in a number of countries, including the US, France, Spain, and even (gasp) Italy.
While selling espresso to Italians may seem like the ultimate in chutzpah – you never know.
Emil Yosufov truly believes that he has taught sophisticated New Yorkers a thing or two about coffee and feels that he has made a definite contribution to the Manhattan caffeine scene.
“We looked different from the moment we opened,” says Emil. “First of all, we brought an aesthetic style to the place that didn’t exist previously in New York – for example, the big grinder displayed in the store. Right away, the feedback was good. And we try to give the best service.”
But when it comes down to it, it’s all about the coffee.
“People like the drinks we introduced them to, like the special cappuccino from Trieste. When you aren’t used to drinking the best coffee, you don’t miss it. But once you taste something really good, you start to demand it.”
Which is why – with rumors flying that Starbucks is coming back to Israel for another go – the Yosufovs aren’t really worried.
“They are welcome to come back and try,” said Elmar Yosufov, surveying his crowded Tel Aviv establishment. “We’re ready.”