Home February 2022 Niran Avni

Niran Avni

    ”Home isn’t a place; it’s a feeling” – Cecelia Ahern
    Eight years ago, Niran Avni brought Israeli iced coffee to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, he’s made a successful exit, packed a backpack and his laptop, and hopped on the first flight out to travel the world. Niran consults various high-tech companies interested in penetrating the American market throughout his travels. This interview took place on the phone line from Argentina to the United States.
    Israeli entrepreneur Niran Avni’s success story begins with iced coffee. With an intricate history dating back to the 17-year long French conquest of Algeria during the Battle of Mazagran, the concept of Iced Coffee was born in 1840. During that time, as the French army was engaged in its battle with Arab and Berber forces, they added water to their coffee and drank it cold to combat the heat. Since then, it was called Mazagran by the French soldiers upon their return to Paris, and they advised cafe owners to serve it to their customers in a tall glass.
    Today, iced coffee has evolved and is considered and recognized as one of the most consumed drinks in the Holy Land. Available at every cafe or kiosk, Israeli “Ice Cafe’’ makes for the perfect refreshment on a hot Tel Avivian summer day. The great thing about it is that it’s not too sweet. Where drinking a Frappuccino leaves an evident coating on one’s teeth—Israeli iced coffee doesn’t leave a mark. In the discourse on traditional coffee versus Israeli iced coffee, another main benefit to the latter is that it’s already blended in a special machine and ready to be served.
    As the official go-to refreshment at Tel Aviv’s beaches, Israeli iced coffee was the missing recipe to California’s sunny weather and lifestyle. Avni’s sudden realization of this in 2014 while leading a Birthright trip, led to his founding of Froffee–a start-up consisting of high-quality blended frozen vegan coffee (I tried it, and you can’t really tell it’s vegan)—suitable for LA’s healthy and posh lifestyle.
    He sold the product to a group of investors at an impressive exit. Today, Froffee is in more than 800 locations across the United States.
    Upon realizing that he could work from anywhere due to the current Covid-19 reality, Niran took his iPhone and personal laptop and ventured off to work and travel the world simultaneously. We conversed at a newly discovered place in Bariloche, Argentina.
Niran, where did the idea to start an iced coffee brand come from?
    “After serving in the military, I served as an emissary of the Jewish Agency of Israel. As part of my role, I traveled to Israel as a guide with Taglit-Birthright. During our excursion throughout the country, the groups always asked us to stop at different coffee shops along the way for a bathroom break. Typically, they came back with cups filled with frozen coffee and a massive smile on their face–insanely excited about it. You and I both grew up on it, so we never thought it was anything special. At the time, I lived in the States, and realized there was something to this Israeli ‘Ice Cafe’ concept. American iced coffee, or what we know as Frappuccino, is actually blended coffee filled with sugar and diluted with ice.
    “At Froffee, we created a unique and one-of-a-kind recipe similar to the frozen coffee I grew to love. We freeze the coffee to retain its flavor and is much stronger and not diluted with ice.
    “Throughout this process, we learned the difficulties of importing dairy products from the United States. As a result of this challenge, we created a vegan iced coffee that is healthy and incredibly delicious.
    “We introduced this coffee at different Jewish and Israeli gatherings and events in Los Angeles and discovered that everyone loved it–both Israelis and American Jews. Eventually, we made our way to the Pacific Beach boardwalk in San Diego and sold our coffee there. The demand for Froffee coffee grew, and we started participating in more significant events, festivals, and even pride parades.”
I understand that the success of Froffee has led to a hefty exit.
    “Yes. We started getting orders from cafes that wanted to sell our coffee and reached a point where we were selling to roughly 500 locations throughout the United States—including some of the nation’s largest chains. In light of this success, we received investments from several American and Israeli investors. Eventually, we sold Froffee two years ago to a private investment company in the States.
    “Today, the business is growing exponentially, and there are about 800 stores nationwide selling our coffee. We are also promoting an iced coffee powder for quick preparation at home. The company that acquired us hired me as a consultant and point of contact to our fortune 500 customers. So, I’m still involved, and we have sold over 3 million cups of coffee to date.”
What were the biggest challenges you faced when starting the business?
    “After deciding to shift our focus away from doing events, and only selling the product in coffee shops and convenience stores—we learned that we would need a large distributor to really scale the business and get the large chains to sell our coffee. I attempted to meet with one of the largest distributors in America for months, but they wouldn’t return any of my phone calls or emails. One day, I decided that enough was enough, and I needed to get them to somehow try my coffee. So, I rented a generator, and my former business partner and I set up a machine outside of their office in downtown Los Angeles, early in the morning. We gave our coffee and business cards to everyone who walked in. Eventually, security came up to us and told us we couldn’t be there. We left feeling that all of it was in vain. The next day, I received a call from one of their Vice Presidents who told us that he loved our coffee and invited us to come in for a meeting. The company eventually became Froffee’s first major distributor.”
And once you got the stores to sell the coffee, how did you manage to get clients to actually try and buy it?
    “Given that Froffee was exposed mostly to the Jewish community, only people who possibly visited Israel in the past really knew about our product. As we were almost running out of money to spend on marketing, we used guerilla marketing techniques to promote our product.
    “We had to get creative. In the beginning, we would set up a “pop-up booth” next to any store that sold our product, and offer free coffee to people and encourage them to spread the word about our brand. I even sent a letter with the company’s story to different social media influencers. Some hoped to post about our product, and many of them did. We also use apps like “Waze,” Google Maps, and Facebook to send targeted ads to people that happened to be close to any one of our stores.”
    Niran Avni was born and raised in Hod HaSharon, Israel. After finishing high school, he joined the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and served as a commanding Officer in the prestigious 8200 intelligence unit—and later in Israel’s security services (he is fluent in Arabic). After completing his five and a half year military service, he turned to academia.
Niran: “After studying for a year, I felt an urge to do something more meaningful than just being a student. I received an offer to come to the United States to assist in the advocacy efforts of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hearing about the rise in antisemitism at the University of San Diego, and the momentum that organizations like the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement have gained, I knew that this was the type of challenge that would interest me, and I wanted to get involved.”
Did these cases correlate with your experience working in San Diego?
    “My personal experience was challenging yet empowering. The challenging and painful aspect consisted of being able to clearly see the extent of the hatred towards Israel and understand the existing disconnect concerning academic discourse and what is represented among different college campuses–both on the part of University professors, lecturers, and representatives, and also on the part of the groups of students who represent the Palestinians without fully comprehending the reality of the situation. In the military, part of my responsibility was to coordinate between the Palestinian government and the Israeli government. I had grown to really know the area and knew that the reality that was depicted on college campuses was far from true.
    “On the more empowering side of my experience, I got a chance to also witness the love and leadership portrayed by the Jewish students on campus when it came to their powerful connection to Israel. They were so readily willing to volunteer and do anything in their power to ensure that the truth about Israel was known.
    “I recall that, at one point, we had organized a demonstration in support of Israel on campus, and over 1500 students attended. We spoke at the University Council and explained why the university should not accept proposals suggesting to boycott Israel, and talked about how well our country is doing in the world.”
You mentioned being very involved in the advocacy against organizations like the BDS. What insights, if any, did you gain during your experience working in conjunction with the university?
    “I’ll share a story with you. I was invited to speak about Israel as the start-up nation in some classes on campus. The purpose of the lecture was not political—it was simply to highlight our country’s technological success. Regardless, Palestinian activists still attended the lecture and decided to cause upheaval.
    “The group lined up in front of me holding pictures of Palestinian children who were, supposedly, killed by the IDF. I noticed that one of the activists tried to hide from me–he covered his face with his shirt so I wouldn’t see him. As the group started to disperse, I recognized that he was a young student and the cousin of a Palestinian I met during my time in the military. I was on excellent terms with his cousin; we used to sit for hours, drink coffee, and have conversations like close friends. When I arrived in San Diego, he told me about his cousin, showed me a picture of him, and connected us. I spoke to him, and we talked about San Diego, and everything seemed fine.
    “I later realized that he met with some Palestinian students and extremist groups—making him an extremist. He decided that he should no longer listen to Israelis or be affiliated with them in any manner because they’re Israelis and that he should boycott against them. That broke me. I didn’t understand how we could communicate like good friends in the territories. Yet, here in the United States—a 15-hour flight away from that—this sense of extremism was so clearly not connected to reality.”
One of the most successful projects you were involved with was Moishe House.
    “Yes, Moishe House is an international nonprofit organization made up of a collection of homes that serve as hubs for young Jewish adults worldwide. They approached and asked me if I would like to open one of their houses in Los Angeles. I agreed, and in a joint collaboration with the IAC and the Jewish Federation in Los Angeles—we opened a home with a mission to establish an engaging and prosperous community bringing young Jews together from all over the country.
    “When this opportunity came along, I said, ‘Let’s do something that connects Israelis with other types of Jews.’ There were a lot of Jewish-American events in Los Angeles and a lot of events for Israelis. For some reason, they never coincided.
    “Our management team was very balanced and consisted of two Israelis and two Jewish-Americans. We hosted a lot of events to connect the two communities: Shabbat dinners on Friday nights, “Israeli Shabbat morning” with Sabich or Jachnun, taking place every Saturday morning, along with creating a workshop on how to make Hummus—and volunteering with different organizations in the community.
    “We had over 250 Jewish, American, and Israeli communities. I became more involved with the community through Moishe House, and later became a mentor for IAC Eitanim, and volunteered at various events within the Israeli community.”
And today, how do you manage to work and travel the world simultaneously?
    “It’s one of those things where you ask yourself, ‘How did I not do this before?’. With today’s technology, there’s no need to really commit to a permanent place. I work full time and have traveled to seven different countries throughout this Covid era. I have had the privilege of learning about new cultures, trying delicious food, and am meeting new people every day.
    “Personally, I really love the summer. So, for example, when winter starts in the U.S. I travel to Argentina to get away from the cold and enjoy the sunshine and wonderful weather.
    “At first, it was challenging to establish an orderly working routine in such exotic places with amazing views and bustling nightlife. However, after several months, I developed a solid work routine for myself. Typically, I work out of shared coworking spaces since there is a productive atmosphere, and I get to meet a lot of people who combine work with travel.”
What’s your favorite thing about this lifestyle?
    “There’s this feeling of freedom that I actually appreciate. This lifestyle offers me control over my time, location, and destination. It means that whenever and wherever I want, I can make friends, and visit friends from around the globe.
    “As I always said, I travel for three things: People, places and photos.
    “Photos, because I love photography; places, since I love to travel; and people, because that’s one of the most amazing things about traveling.
    “Our generation can travel around the world, be exposed to new cultures, and make a living simultaneously.”
What are your plans for the future?
    “So, I’m continuing to consult at the investment firm that acquired Froffee. However, in addition to that, I want to continue helping international companies and Israeli start-ups penetrate into the American market and achieve similar results to what we achieved at Froffee.”
*Translated by Yael Sasonov   

Elad Massuri is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.

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