Mahane Yehuda is one of Jerusalem’s top tourist sites, as well as the city’s best outdoor food market. Redeveloped in the last decade, it now features gourmet cheeses, crusty breads and quaint trattorias, as well as the essential, familiar selection of cucumbers and tomatoes, pumpkins and potatoes, meat, fish and foul.
And as the market has grown and changed, it has become a hub for downtown Jerusalem, as well as a center for business opportunity.
The 1997 and 2002 bombings, that killed 23 people, changed the market’s focus and direction. Following those blasts, some locals and many tourists stayed away from the shuk, fearing more attacks as the large crowds made it hard to secure the area. The market’s board of directors decided to take a new approach, opening cafes and boutiques, renovating the streets and alleyways of the decades-old area, enticing a more middle-class population to shop regularly.
Ten years later, the market is always full, with locals still browsing for the best vegetables, but Israeli and overseas visitors now also making their way from fresh-squeezed juices to cappuccinos, fish-and-chip stands to gourmet bakeries to pasta joints to bars.
“The shuk is a popular location because it’s not a religious destination,” said Michael Weiss, one of two partners behind a recently launched web guide to the market. “Jerusalem is associated with history, spirituality and this is a place where it’s not all about that, it’s a place to take a breath.”
It’s also a business opportunity for Weiss and his partner, who have created Machne, the market’s first comprehensive website, www.machne.co.il, and added an option for a self-guided tour, Shuk Bites, with a map and punch-card that includes tastings from a selection of stalls and stores. Reuven Filo, Weiss’s partner, is a consultant in boutique tourism, specializing in food and wine tours in Israel.
The site, said Weiss, represents the first time that the shuk has been fully mapped, including all the streets, alleys and stories behind each stall. They’ve found that their clients include both foreign tourists and local visitors, because it’s an experience that allows people to come and visit, when they want, and at their own pace.
“The level of trust with the stall-owners was already there, but we definitely had to bring them on board to the fact that people will do this tour on their own,” said Weiss, who has created similar websites and self-guided tours for the Old City shuk as well as the Levinsky market in Tel Aviv. “It’s a pioneering element and there were obstacles.”
Mahane Yehuda proprietors are often known for being a touch curmudgeonly or unapproachable, particularly if shoppers buy less than a kilo — about 2.2 pounds — of produce, but they were familiar with the Shuk Bites team from their initial work creating the website, which made the requests for tasting vouchers more acceptable.
And there are more purchases being made as a result of the venture, even by tourists who weren’t necessarily planning on buying a week’s worth of pita.
“When the owners have a chance to introduce themselves, people don’t just take the tastes, they buy the cheeses and the halva and the spices,” said Weiss.
The nature of the greeting, of course, depends on the proprietor. At Hava Brothers Bakery, where a voucher merits a full eshtanor bread, hot from the oven and sprinkled with za’atar, the bread was offered immediately upon seeing the Shuk Bites card, but there wasn’t much conversation beyond that exchange. But at Basher Fromagerie — a well-known Mahane Yehuda store that features dozens of cheeses, all kosher, from all over the world — the knowledgeable and approachable staff did not hesitate to offer a fresh baguette slathered with butter sitting on a marble round.
“We’re in the shuk, but we’re a unique product that’s not completely connected to the shuk,” explained David Basher, who owns the store with his brother, Eli.
The Basher brothers opened their store, originally called Basher, King of the Cheeses, 15 years ago on Etz Haim Street, the main avenue of the market. With dozens of cheeses made locally as well as imports from France, England and Switzerland, they’ve found that customers are thrilled to find such a wide selection, and kosher to boot.
The Bashers have their own mashgiah, a kosher supervisor, who works with the various dairies in Europe to ensure that the cheeses are acceptable.
“It’s a lot of money, but it’s good for our name,” said Basher. “People always say, ‘It’s too bad we don’t have this everywhere, too bad we don’t have this in Chicago’.”
It’s certainly a different kind of stall than the fruits being sold next door, or the woodsy mushrooms a few stalls down.
Besides the fromagerie, the Bashers recently opened Basher Resto Bar, a wine-and-cheese bar on nearby Agrippas Street; they also have a store in Tel Aviv and another about to open in suburban Ra’anana.
“I think it adds to the local tourism,” Basher said, pointing to the store full of customers. “Our shuk is one of the best in the world, and many tourists are amazed by it.”
The market, added Weiss, is “the most popular market in Israel, period. This is just a great way to add value.”