NEW YORK — Bamba, Bisli, Goldstar beer and Nescafe coffee are coming off the shelves of Holyland Market for the last time, as New York’s only Israeli-style mini-mart prepares to close at the end of the month.
The graffiti-splattered store on St. Mark’s street in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood has been a home port for Israelis in the city for the past 18 years.
Expats could score their favorite products from home at Holyland, down to lavender-scented Pinuk hair conditioner and the Friday edition of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, in a store that felt like it could be located in Tel Aviv or Ashkelon — a Middle Eastern parallel to New York City’s beloved bodegas.
Other stores in the city, such as Kosher grocery outlets, carry some of the same products, but don’t have the atmosphere of an Israeli “makolet,” or neighborhood mini-mart.
“For the Israelis, it’s the whole picture. It’s going from all the cheeses, to the frozen burekas and malawach, to the Israeli coffee that they love,” owner Eran Hileli said of his store. Homesick transplants would make the trip downtown for their favorite laundry products to get a smell of home, or for the snacks they ate as kids, he said.
“It’s memories. At the end of the day, food in a lot of ways is memories, about our time, our childhood in Israel. It makes it fun to buy it,” he said.
Hileli decided to close the store due to the changing neighborhood and business landscape, but mostly to set off on a new business venture.
Hileli’s businesses have coasted on the city’s tides since he moved to New York 25 years ago. Before opening Holyland in 2004, he owned a record store at the same location, on the iconic, hip city street lined with bars, pizzerias and smoke shops.
When the music industry started going digital in the early 2000s, he saw chain stores closing their doors and his business traffic fell. He decided to open Holyland in 2004 to cater to the many Israelis in the neighborhood.
“Also, I wanted Israeli food to eat, so it came out as a good deal for me,” he said.
At the time, he was the only one in the city selling most of the Israeli products. The shelves were lined with stacks of hummus, cabbage salad, eggplant-based dips, Prigat brand fruit juice, Krembo chocolates and Hebrew-labeled junk food.
The store became a staple for community members, who would travel from around the city to the mini-mart, with its second-hand Hebrew books on shelves next to the door and strings of Israeli flags draped from the ceiling above the narrow aisles. The rundown vibe felt more welcoming than the sleek Kosher supermarkets uptown, and new arrivals from Israel found work behind the cash register, checking out customers and chatting in their native tongue. American Jews and non-Jewish city residents also made up a chunk of his clientele.
A growing American taste for healthy Middle Eastern products also helped give the business a boost after many Israelis left the city during the 2008 financial crash.
This week, handwritten signs taped to the front window advertise 1+1 deals and many of the shelves are already empty. Hileli plans to close the doors for good on March 31, and hopes to sell out most products by the weekend.
Hebrew-language New York Facebook groups lit up with comments like, “Ok, I’m a little bit in shock… I just found out Holyland Market is about to close,” and, “I’m in a crisis because I can’t find my root beer now.”
Customers with their kids conversed with Hileli on a recent evening, telling him, “I can’t believe you won’t be here for Passover,” and asking, “Where can I get my favorite shampoo now?” The store’s ebullient, bewhiskered Israeli cashier noodled on a child-sized cello behind the counter and said he has no plans for what comes next.
Hileli said he has tired of the physical labor and claustrophobia involved in running a mini-mart, plus the neighborhood, and city, have changed.
“When I opened the store, St. Mark’s street was called ‘Little Israel.’ Now I know maybe two people that are living on the street that are Israeli. And with corona, a lot of Israelis left the city,” he said.
Many Israeli families, who brought in the most business, left New York during the pandemic, and more Israeli products are now available for order online, and selling out of a warehouse in Brooklyn is cheaper than operating a storefront in Manhattan.
“At the end of the day, I don’t want to be here at age 60 or 70 and still selling Bamba,” Hileli said. So he’s moving on to his next venture, hummus, “the love of my life,” he said, adding that he has no regrets about focusing on something new.
He started his hummus company around five years ago by running a six-month trial to find the best recipe, using Holyland customers as his focus group.
He named the business Holy Hummus because the recipe was “a gift from God,” he said, and then all the “holy shit and holy cow that people were saying” after they tried it.
The business grew slowly, by word-of-mouth, but has been taking off, and now requires his full attention to proceed.
He believes the US is primed for a new kind of hummus, since Americans are all now familiar with the product, largely through the Israeli company Sabra. Different hummus brands are widely available in supermarkets and restaurants, but most Americans eat it as a dip, not as a meal, like in Israel.
“The market is ready. Now they need to taste and to choose and most of the companies have the same product, no game changers. My hummus is a game changer,” he said. “It’s different than Sabra. It’s very creamy, very smooth. When you finish a bite, you want another bite.”
“The hummus is not calling them, ‘Come back to me,’ and my hummus is talking,” he said. “Everyone’s snacking. My hummus, it’s a meal.”
Hummus and pitas were his top-selling combination at Holyland Market already.
Holy Hummus is available in the city in the Westside Market, Zabar’s, Union Market, Eataly, Essex Market and other locations, and he has signed with some larger distributors recently that will sell the product in chain grocery stores.
Next month, new flavors and sizes will come out, as well as a tahini line called — you guessed it — Holy Tahini.
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