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Caffeinated David Takes On Seattle’s Goliath

April 1, 2003, was a red-letter day in the annals of Israeli coffee-drinking history. That was when coffee goliath Starbucks admitted defeat and closed up its six Holy Land stores. Now, three years later, an Israeli coffee company is setting up shop in America, with an eye toward outdoing the giant on its own turf.

Aroma, Israel’s leading coffeehouse chain, opened a branch in New York’s Soho last week — its first outside Israel — and welcomed expat Israelis and other curious New Yorkers looking to enjoy Israel’s take on coffeehouse fare.

“There is no other such coffee in the U.S.,” said Hanoch Milwidski, head of the chain’s New York operation. “Our quality is a few notches higher.”

Aroma’s prices are competitive, too. Their small cappuccino is a full 60 cents cheaper than at Starbucks.

Though a relatively young chain — its first store opened just a decade ago — Aroma now operates 73 Israeli outlets, more than any of its competitors.

Aroma specializes in making “fast food that is not junk food,” Milwidski said. “We bake 24/7. We cut the vegetables after you order. What’s missing in our competitors’ food is the quality and health.”

Noam Behrman, the chain’s marketing director, emphasized the advantages of preparing food on site. “Starbucks doesn’t have a kitchen,” he said. “Their food comes in a truck from somewhere else. By the time you eat a sandwich there at lunch, it’s a catastrophe.”

The new Manhattan store, which does not serve kosher food, is not aimed at an Israeli or Jewish clientele. “We are not an Israeli place,” Milwidski said. “There will be no Israeli newspapers or Israeli TV. I am not hummus. I’m an American espresso bar.”

The chain soon will be opening stores in Toronto and Miami, and it has plans to open others in California, Spain and Hungary.

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