June 10, 2007, Updated September 12, 2012

Company patriarch Yosef Abadi and his famous cookies.Can an Israeli bagel-shaped cookie with origins in a Syrian Jewish family’s kitchen shine brightly in the Land of the Rising Sun? If the cookie is from Yoram Abadi’s Jerusalem-based bakery, you can bet your dough on it.

While the Israeli bakery legend’s treats may not be big in Japan just yet, company officials are confident that within a year or so, the cookies with the humble beginnings but popular taste will conquer not only Japan, but China and many other parts of the globe as well.

In fact, the only thing holding back the cookies – already wildly popular in Israel and with Jewish communities around the globe – from being snapped up from Tokyo store shelves is the final OK from a Japanese buyer. Abadi officials believe that the buyer is simply waiting to make sure the yummy stuff stays fresh after one year, as promised on the package.

In fact, Dan Lalo, the company’s export manager, says “the sky’s the limit” for Abadi’s worldwide sales, with an eye towards having the cookies available to those visiting China for the 2008 Olympics, and finding a regular place in Albertson’s and other stores in the US and elsewhere around the globe.

Not bad for the little cookies that started out being produced in Khaleb, Syria, some five generations ago, and still lovingly overseen by company patriarch Yosef Abadi, whose picture adorns the bags of the sweet, salty and spicy-flavored, round cookies.

The home-made treats began making a name for themselves when the family opened its first store in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market in 1949.

“They started out as a small bakery in Syria, and Yosef immigrated to Israel in 1927. There are people I’ve met who say that one of the things they remember is standing in line in the shuk for the cookies,” Lalo told ISRAEL21c.

A move to Jerusalem’s Atarot industrial zone followed, with some 140 baked products now being turned out – anything from pasty-like ruggelach to sheet cakes, but with the emphasis on the bagel-shaped cookies that proved so popular.

But Lalo, a family friend of company director Yoram Abadi, who joined the operation about six months ago, took a look at the company’s huge local success and realized it had more potential.

Sure they were already selling some cookies to Jewish communities in Antwerp, Paris, London and Brooklyn for about $200,000-$250,000 a year, but Lalo believed the family was under-imagining how hot their cookies could be worldwide.

“I told him the cookies are good enough to sell in the general market abroad,” says Lalo, the sound of the machinery at Jerusalem’s Atarot industrial center factory in the background. “There are Canadians, Japanese, even Chinese who don’t know what Judaism is, and couldn’t care less about the kashrut (Kosher) certificate we have. The cookie is good enough for export.”

Determined to think big, Lalo set up a business plan, with the idea to first sell in American and Canadian general markets, then Eastern Europe, and South America, and then to China and Japan. But a visitor to the company’s stand in the SIAL trade fair in Paris last fall changed that schedule dramatically.

“A very nice Japanese woman approached us, and at first we thought she was a passerby,” recalls Lalo of the encounter that would alter his plans. “But she came back the next day with a delegation of about 40 people who stood around her, all Japanese. It turns out that she is a very senior person in a very large distribution company in Japan, and she really liked our product.”

As Lalo and the Abadi team discovered, Japanese tastes for food run towards the exotic. “The Japanese sense of taste is very different from ours. We’re used to putting salt and pepper on our food; they never used it. So we couldn’t sell them the salty cookies.

“They like exotic flavors… This is something either they didn’t have before, or close to something they have and like. For the Japanese, the hyssop (za’atar), onion and spicy cookies were hits. I told them I could make other flavors, and they liked that idea, too.”

Lalo had the bakery ship the woman and her potential buyer – who runs a huge chain of malls in Japan – a shipment of the cookies, which claim to maintain their shelf life for at least a year. Now they’re waiting for their cookie to pass the freshness test before they can finalize the deal, which they believe is a sure thing.

“He can’t put in on the shelf until he sees how it behaves,” says Lalo, “but I’m sure the product will be good.”

Lalo said that reports in the Israeli media that Abadi would do $1.5 million worth of business with Japan were premature, but if things work out, the deal will be worth even more.

“I don’t have the actual sale yet. I have a certain expectation, and if it’s right, I’ll have to move half the plant to Japan… I’m waiting for the product to pass the tests that they want to put it through. Once that happens, the prediction of $1.5m., will be too little.”

The potential breakthrough in Japan didn’t surprise Lalo, however, who simply says of his original dream for the company: “I guess the order of development got switched around.”

With the first shipment of Abadi cookies heading out to Mexico – to a chain with 3,700 outlets – as he spoke, he noted: “The Americans have gone to the third year, the Japanese the second year, and Central America came first.”

His plan for the US and Canadian markets is focusing on “retailers like Amazon.com and Albertson – I’m not talking about the kosher products shelf only, and it’s very hard work.” He has contacts that are interested in adding the Abadi products to their private label, and is confident he’ll eventually succeed there as well. “I planted many seeds and I’m waiting for them to sprout – I’ll be there,” he declares confidently, surrounded by Abadi goods.

For now, however, the company’s eyes are towards the Far East. “It’s just a matter of having patience; the same regarding the Chinese market. We learned not to sell the Chinese sweet things, for example – you learn on the fly. I fully believe that the Japanese will buy our product beginning in October or November.” Sales in 2006 were $15 million in Israel, and some $250,000 abroad. While before, 97 percent of the company sales were local, the aim now is to make it 60-70 percent sales abroad.

The elderly man whose smiling face adorns the bags of cookies he produces still can’t believe his cookies have traveled the long road from his kitchen in Syria to the shelves of stores from Japan to Mexico. “He’s happy if the name of Abadi is growing,” says Lalo. “He works all day trying to come up with new recipes and products.”

“Nothing can compare to our little cookies” says Lalo, whose vision has them being eaten by Israeli backpackers in the Far East or a London businessman having afternoon tea. He’s also happy his products, which bear the stamp “Product of Israel,” could be edible ambassadors of Israel abroad. If that happens, he says, “You’ll see me smile. It will mean that we succeeded.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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