Thursday, August 16, 2007

Falafel takes over the world

It all began sixteen years ago at a small stand named 'Maoz,' that a couple named Nachman and Sima Milo set up in the center of Amsterdam. Today, after they have fried a million patties and opened branches in France, New York, and Australia, they are dreaming of becoming the next McDonald's

The Latin Quarter of the capital of France has been a melting pot for countless languages and tastes for a long time. Once, 500 years ago, the students spoke Latin and thus the quarter received its name. Today the Sorbonne students speak more English than Latin, and eat more McDonald's than baguettes.

The crowded streets are a type of giant fast- food court with a pinch of French and a lot of shwarma, or as they call it in France a “Greek sandwich”. But right in the middle of the quarter stands a tiny, green store that has no meat, but has a lot of customers who swear by their pita.

From noon on, there is a non-stop line at the entrance to the Maoz falafel stand. The customers do not really know that they are eating the national food of Israel. When they are engrossed in their pita, they do not really care. For four Euros they can enjoy hot falafel balls, tahini, and a variety of fresh salads for free.
At times it is shaped like a ball, sometimes like a flat burger. It may have a pale brown color, or be darksome. It can have a smooth or grainy texture, and be eaten inside a pita or Turkish bread. Make way for hummus’s brother: falafel. Marie, a 28 year-old Frenchwoman, works in the office next door and came down to buy two full pitas for herself and a co-worker.

“I prefer not to eat meat - and these vegetarian patties are simply amazing,” she said.

Does she know the origin of the food? “I think it is from one of the Arab countries,” she said, and did not associate the name “Maoz” with Israel. “I only know it is cheap and tasty,” Marie summarized and disappeared down one of the alleys.

This is apparently the secret to the success of falafel around the world. The national food of Israel has become a health trend.

From Australia to America, through India, France, Germany, and Spain, Maoz Falafel, which was founded 16 years ago in Amsterdam, is spreading like jellyfish in the Mediterranean Sea. Today, the founders of the franchise, the Milo brothers, have 25 branches and they sell more than 12,000 falafels a day.

“By 2015, I believe that we will have a thousand branches around the world,” said owner Nachman Milo, 59, who is convinced that his forecast is entirely reasonable. “The vegetarian market is huge, and today we have reached the break-through point.”

How much does it cost to insure a pita?

Way before his big break, Maoz was a small stand in Amsterdam that had a sign saying "Falafel like in Israel.”

In the early 90's Nachman and his wife Sima decided to leave Israel for a sabbatical in Amsterdam. They sold their insurance and computers businesses in Israel and arrived in Holland, because Nachman’s brother, Dov, was already living there and because “there is good energy in the air.” Little did they know that in a few months time they would be breathing in oil soaked air.

The path to the falafel stand was coincidental. “We did not think at all about entering the fast food business,” said Nachman. “We bought a piece of real estate and at the end of the street of our building there was a small space where you could not do anything.”

Or almost anything. His wife, Sima, suggested that they use that corner to make Israeli falafel since what they had been served so far in Holland was terrible: Just two balls in a pita without any taste."

India: They believe that in the new branch in Bombay the amchur will become a success story.

Sima, “an exceptional cook” according to her husband, entered the family kitchen in Amsterdam and began developing a recipe for falafel for non-Jews. They chose the name “Maoz” coincidentally “because all the other Israeli names were already taken.”

After they overcame the pita obstacle - “we went to the bakery and explained that we needed big pitas, not miniature ones” - the first Maoz stand in Amsterdam was on its way. Very quickly long lines began to form outside the small nook, which caught Sima and Nachman unprepared.

“People would block the trolley tracks and the driver would get annoyed. We said to ourselves that we had a hit on our hands and we had to do something with it.” In the beginning they continued to improve the menu, which was not only based on falafel but also on salads. “Each time I entered the kitchen and tried a different salad until I arrived at the current method,” Sima said, “we spent 10 hours a day on our feet.”

Five years later it was time for an expansion, which quickly conquered Europe and then the world. At first it was only in Holland, where today there are ten branches of Maoz Falafel. Then it was Paris’ turn with one branch and then after the partners brothers Boaz and Lior Shvitzer joined, Maoz Falafel went on to conquer the world. Today the franchise has branches in Germany, Spain, Australia, Britain, and even in Union Square in the heart of Manhattan.

The magazine Time Out New York gave the new immigrants the unlimited culinary opportunity with a grade of five out of six in a review that was published a few weeks ago in their fast food column. “Cheap and healthier than most other fast food chains,” praised the reviewer. After New York, it was India's turn, where they are opening the first branch in Bombay. There will soon be a branch in China.

Seeing green

What is missing from the stands is the Israeli identification of the Maoz chain that has disappeared in recent years. Today the branches around the world do not carry the mythological sign “Falafel like in Israel.” The emphasis is now on values such as vegetarianism, freshness, and a healthy lifestyle.

“All the branches look the same, with the same logo and the word 'vegetarian.' They are all painted green because we are talking about healthy food,” explained Milo. The word “falafel” is also missing from the signs, and today they call the food served at the stand a “Maoz”.

“We want to become like McDonald's. It will be impossible to imitate us because the product will be identified with the name of the franchise,”

explained the owners who see a rosy-green future, the same color as the stands.

Nachman and Sima insist that erasing the Israeli identification was not done for political reasons.

“Even though over the years there were some Egyptians who got angry that we presented the food as Israeli and they claimed that we stole their national treasure,” Nachman said while insisting that he has never encountered real hostility.

The trans-national brand was done for marketing purposes and not, god forbid, for any anti-Israel reason.

“It is important that you write that we try to only buy products made in Israel,” said Sima who is proud of the tahini that drips off the chins of the clients from Bombay to Munich.

Falafel around the world - how they like it:

France: At the stand in Paris the spicy tomato sauce and onions work overtime.

Spain: They eat cooked chickpeas next to their pita.

Germany: The falafel addicts dip their falafel balls in vinegar.

Holland: They love their falafel with a lot of mayonnaise.


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