The Jerusalem start-up that foodies will love

Yalla Basta organizes ‘food walks’ in the shuk; its upcoming smartphone app will give users a real ‘taste’ of the old-time market

Yalla Basta 'food walk' card for Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yalla Basta 'food walk' card for Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market (photo credit: Courtesy)

Food is a big part of vacation fun, and in many “old world” cities, the best place to find fun, native foods is in the open-air marketplace. In Jerusalem, that would be Mahane Yehuda. But there are other interesting food spots in the country, such as the Levinsky market in Tel Aviv, the Old City of Jaffa, and even the market in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Without a guide, though, you won’t know which establishment has the best burekas, shwarma, or other native delicacy, says Tamar Shpilman, CEO of Israeli start-up Yalla Basta and its international department, Market Bites. “We want to help travelers feel like locals, guiding them to the best places to have a bite or a whole meal. It’s an opportunity for ‘foodie tourists’ to get a guided tour of the best places to eat without having to hire a tour guide.”

To that end, Yalla Basta (a “basta” is Hebrew slang for a booth in an Israeli open-air market) provides travelers with a voucher card (a smartphone app is also under development) that guides them to the best places in the shuk to chow down. “We choose vendors that we feel will give travelers a good, positive and tasty experience, and include them in one of our tours. The customers get a voucher they can redeem for a snack or mini-meal, and we pay the vendors for coupons that are redeemed,” Shpilman told The Times of Israel, on the sidelines of the second Jerusalem International Tourism Summit. “We structure the tour in a way that gives them a flowing experience of the market, so they get an idea of what its strong points are. This way, they can feel more like the locals … eat what the locals are eating.”

The vouchers are mostly distributed via orders over the Internet, on Yalla Basta’s website. “Bites” come in two sizes — NIS 59 for a snack-sized portion, and NIS 99 for a more substantial serving. Yalla Basta also works with tour guides and travel promoters, who market the service to their patrons as well. Customers collect the cards in the marketplace, and can use their smartphones to follow along on Yalla Basta’s dedicated market websites, which give guided tours and background on each market, and in particular the eateries and stores to which the visitors are being sent.

“The site is very comprehensive and includes information that is difficult to obtain elsewhere,” said Shpilman. “That in itself has a lot of value to travelers and shopkeepers, and the site is free.”

The smartphone app — which will be ready within the next few months — will allow users to present paperless vouchers at the participating establishments. In addition, the app will include an augmented reality component that will personalize the visit. “The app will include music, narration of the stories behind the stores, and ways to view the market as it was in the past, using augmented reality technology,” Shpilman continued.

The company has been serving tourists in Israel for about a year and a half, and the company will now be expanding abroad, under the company name “Market Bites”; service is due to begin soon in Barcelona and Nice. “Both municipalities are happy to be working with us and are anxious for us to get started,” said Shpilman. “They were very impressed with what we did in Israel, and see it as a model to give tourists more reasons to visit their cities and patronize businesses.” Shpilman will begin operating in both cities within the next two months, and the company is in negotiations with other cities in Europe, she said.

Yalla Basta/Market Bites is being funded by Shpilman and two partners in the tourist business in Jerusalem, but it does have money coming in — numerous tour groups and hundreds of individuals have bought the cards. The biggest seller is Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, Shpilman said, which is followed by Tel Aviv’s Levinsky market and the Jaffa flea-market area.

But Shpilman thinks that the most popular venue could be the one that is currently the “quietest” — the open-air market in the Old City of Jerusalem. “There are so many tastes and experiences there… this is the one that is waiting to be discovered,” she enthused.

Shpilman said she had a little trouble signing up merchants in the Old City for the service — but not because of political reasons. “It wasn’t that I’m Israeli and they’re Palestinian, but because this is a new idea that they are just not used to.” The whole concept of a “food walk,” and of a foodie — a fan of interesting new and gourmet foods — was a revelation to the Arab marketplace merchants, not to mention the idea of an augmented reality smartphone application, continued Shpilman. “But many did sign up with us, and they are very happy they did so, because it is bringing them new business.”

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