Cafe Otef begins pop-up project, where displaced southern residents can feel at home

With 1st branch belonging to Netiv Ha’asara a runaway success in Tel Aviv, 7 are planned in total, each telling stories and selling specialties of a distinct community hit on Oct. 7

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

The exterior of Cafe Otef, this one belonging to the community of Moshav Netiv Ha'asara, in Tel Aviv's Sarona complex (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
The exterior of Cafe Otef, this one belonging to the community of Moshav Netiv Ha'asara, in Tel Aviv's Sarona complex (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The line for coffee and pastry snaked outside the Cafe Otef coffee shop in the Sarona complex in Tel Aviv, and the tables were full.

“It’s been like this every weekend,” said Tamir Barelko, one of the co-founders of the business project, which aims to help the survivors of the devastating October 7 Hamas-led attack in southern Israel.

Barelko, a restaurateur and serial entrepreneur in the culinary world, calls himself an activist by nature. In the weeks after October 7, he began looking to do something that would help the tens of thousands of people evacuated from the Gaza border communities, many of them to Tel Aviv.

“I wanted to do something real, to build something that allows them to rebuild themselves as well,” said Barelko.

Working with several activists, Barelko created the Cafe Otef model, named for Otef Aza, aka the Gaza Envelope area.

Seven of the hardest-hit communities will each have their own cafe run by residents of those communities, where they can gather, work and feel supported by local residents who pop in for a bite.

The staff at Cafe Otef, this one belonging to the community of Moshav Netiv Ha’asara, in Tel Aviv’s Sarona complex (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

All of the cafes will operate as a rent-free pop-up for the first six months, with the option of continuing to operate afterwards.

The cafes are being funded by the philanthropic arms of Israeli banks and tech companies, said Barelko.

Each cafe has about 10 staff members, all from the community being represented by that location. The manager of each cafe will earn 15% of the profits as an incentive for success, said Barelko.

Each Cafe Otef will offer the same menu of flaky pastries and sandwiches, designed by chef and food writer Ruthie Russo. Coffee is served in paper cups, with the foam bearing messages such as “We shall thrive again.”

A coffee served at Cafe Otef, this one belonging to the community of Moshav Netiv Ha’asara, in Tel Aviv’s Sarona complex (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Gift shops will offer products made in various Gaza border communities, including ceramics in the shape of red anemone flowers, jars of honey and jam, T-shirts, and books

“This is meant to be a brand,” said Barelko, “with each cafe having its own story. We’re building it to their specifications, and each location is meant to be meaningful.”

Each one will tell the stories and offer the specialties of its community, such as honey made by Kibbutz Yad Mordechai and chocolate created by chocolatier Dvir Karp, who was murdered in his Kibbutz Re’im home with his partner, Stav Kimchi.

There are plans to create a kind of academy in a future Sderot location, as well as a coffee factory and chocolate workshop in the south.

Barelko said, “All of the communities are asking for it, including Kiryat Shmona,” a northern city that has also been evacuated since October 8 amid attacks from the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group.

The first Cafe Otef — at the Sarona complex on Kaplan Street, one of the main locations where hostage families have gathered to protest and rally over the last months — belongs to the community of Moshav Netiv Ha’asara.

Another one to be opened soon will be in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Florentin, where members of Kibbutz Re’im have been temporarily relocated to two new apartment high-rises. The Florentin location in south Tel Aviv is a two-floor space, with the lower floor designated for live performances, including by performers from the south.

While the first two cafes are in Tel Aviv, the others will be situated near the south, “close to home,” said Barelko.

“If the kibbutz is taking refuge in another location, we’ll make it work for them where they are, but if possible, we want them close to home,” he said. “These are businesses for the long term.”

Tamir Barelko, serial entrepreneur and restauranteur who helped create the Cafe Otef concept, coffee shops run by members of the Gaza border communities (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The project is still in its initial stages, said Barelko, describing the emotional trauma of the young staffers still reeling from the October 7 Hamas attack and the deaths, abductions and losses sustained by their communities.

“We’re like psychologists,” he said. “You can’t imagine how much stress and depression they’re grappling with.”

But working on the Cafe Otef brand fills an emotional need, said Barelko, who co-founded and was the CEO of the Arcaffe chain.

“I feel like I’m offering some hope and rebirth in the most difficult time,” he said. “And people are responding, by coming here in droves, by buying and trying to give back.”

Cafe Otef–Moshav Netiv Ha’asara, 30 Kaplan Street, Tel Aviv

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