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Escaping coronavirus stress, Israelis buy chocolate

Young Israeli chocolatiers are battling the coronavirus-induced economic crisis to keep the local chocolate industry afloat.

The Ika Chocolate sales team has been working hard these past few days. Many Tel Avivians bought chocolate and praline boxes for the Sept. 18 Jewish New Year. The shop was busy with customers up until the very last minute before closing for the holiday.

Chocolate shops in Jerusalem were equally busy this week. The newly opened Gustel Chocolate Boutique, located in downtown Jerusalem in the Mahne Yehuda market area and crammed between a grocery store and a tailor shop, has captured the attention of many. Named after a great-grandmother, Gustel offers connoisseurs Jerusalem-made fine chocolates, inspired by Parisian artisans. Not deterred by the coronavirus pandemic, Yaacov Elbert and his wife opened their high-end chocolate shop a month ago. The current nationwide lockdown has not been positive news for them, but they are hoping their business will survive.

"We believe that chocolate — apart from its extraordinary texture, taste and smell — is also a way of expressing sentiments, of caring and loving. And in these times of corona, when people are confined and not together, offering chocolate is offering encouragement, making happy or just relaying the message that someone is thinking of you," Elbert told Al-Monitor.

Elbert said that people bought more chocolate in the days before the New Year, and before the complete lockdown that started Sept. 25. "When we opened the shop, we also launched a site with a delivery service. Indeed, people have ordered our chocolates before the lockdown. I think they needed this treat in order to cope with the absurd situation they were forced into," he said.

A study conducted recently by Ben-Gurion University discovered that Israelis have been consuming more wine and chocolate since the outbreak of the pandemic. More so, the study showed that men and women consume alike. In other words, both men and women drink more wine and eat more chocolate. That being said, small chocolate shops are battling to survive the pandemic-induced economic crisis and the recurrent lockdown periods.

The fine chocolate industry is rather new in Israel. The country has no chocolate-making tradition like France, Switzerland or Belgium. In the early years of Israel, and for several decades, the large distribution company Elite was practically the only one manufacturing chocolate. Some people claimed that without a chocolate-making tradition and with a hot climate, Israel was not meant to become a chocolate power house. Nevertheless, an increasing number of young entrepreneurs are insisting that Israelis do love good chocolate. They are willing to bet quite a lot on that. Interestingly, many of these entrepreneurs are women.  

Ravit Galitzki discovered chocolate-making some 14 years ago. An economic crisis forced her to change course. Looking back, she said this crisis opened a new window for her, enabling her to fulfill her dreams. She has studied with great chocolate masters in France, such as chocolatier Philippe Bertrand, and has even taken up teaching. Her shop has become a hub for chocolate lovers across Israel.

"Israeli society has changed since the coronavirus pandemic. We see a great deal of solidarity. There are plenty of social network groups trying to help small businesses survive. Our chocolate shop is part of that effort, of trying to offer Israelis some sweet moments in these difficult times. We are shipping our chocolates to people’s doorstep. It’s our way of offering some comfort. And in that spirit, when the pandemic broke out, we created new tastes. We now also propose a special colorful and joyful chocolate," Galitzki told Al-Monitor.

She said chocolate habits have changed. Before the pandemic, Israelis bought her chocolates and pralines mostly as gifts. Now people buy them for themselves. Customers who bought chocolates during the first lockdown in March are returning now for the second lockdown. Children order chocolates to be sent to their elderly parents. Others send chocolates to friends, just to make them happy. Chocolate-making kits have become very popular, too. Israelis are restricted to their own neighborhoods until the end of the High Holiday season, and many are phoning the shop for deliveries. For Yom Kippur, Galitzki even offered refreshing chocolate pralines for the dinner ending the fast.

Jerusalem-based chocolate boutique Cacao Forest (Yaar Cacao Store) has also adapted its business to the pandemic and the lockdown. The home page of its website features a line of deliverable chocolate boxes called "confinement encouragement." Yaara Kalmanovitch, owner of this fine chocolate boutique, offers chocolate lollipops, extra nut chocolate spreads and other food comfort chocolate products. You can even get a box of chocolate pralines with a local artisan beer bottle.

Cacao Forest is not just a chocolate shop: New immigrants and youths who come from broken families have found a job and a home there. In "normal times," Kalmanovitch also offers chocolate-making workshops.

For her, Elbert and Galitzki, the coming weeks and months will be crucial, as small businesses across Israel are collapsing. They hope that the young Israeli chocolate industry will survive.