|Traffic | Weather | Your account||Movies | Restaurants | Today's events|
Food industry sees kosher as symbol for higher sales
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — When Albertsons hired Yakov Yarmove more than three years ago, the company found a point man to navigate what might seem an unlikely market for a grocery chain with stores in places like Cheyenne, Wyo.: kosher food.
Albertsons has since dramatically expanded kosher aisles at hundreds of its supermarkets across the country. The giant grocery chain has also launched more than two dozen kosher destination stores that include everything from bakeries to delis.
"There's a kosher awakening," said Yarmove, an observant Jew who is Albertsons' corporate kosher, marketing and operations manager. "Kosher was perceived as scary and foreign. Now it's perceived as chic. I think everybody is realizing that there is an opportunity."
Idaho-based Albertsons — which may soon have a new owner — is just one of many companies competing for a lucrative slice of the kosher industry.
The $9 billion kosher market is growing at a rate of 15 percent a year. Meanwhile, total grocery-store sales grew 4.4 percent during the first 11 months of 2005, to $424.8 billion, compared with 2004, according to the Food Marketing Institute.
Experts say the boom is being fueled by several factors, including vegetarians and younger customers looking for more healthful and safer food, the same demographic that has helped the organic market take off. Plenty of these customers are not Jewish.
"When I take the matzos to the church, they love it," said Ursula Torres of New York, who was buying 100 percent wheat matzos recently at Streit's, a Jewish landmark on the Lower East Side.
Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior research analyst with Mintel International Group, a Chicago-based consulting firm, recently completed a nationwide study in April that produced some surprising results about the kosher craze.
She found 55 percent of the people who buy kosher products believed the food was better for them — almost double the number in a similar study Mogelonsky conducted in 2003.
"They trust the kosher symbol like they'd trust the Good Housekeeping seal," she said.
Companies haven't overlooked the advantages of selling kosher, which means the food was prepared under Jewish dietary laws.
Manischewitz, one of the best-known kosher-food companies, is developing an advertising campaign that says the name is "Jewish for good food."
Hebrew National, a division of ConAgra Foods, has always touted that famous tagline found on its packages: "We answer to a higher authority." But over the summer, the company decided to move the "Finest Kosher Quality" seal to a more prominent spot on certain product packaging.
Lou Nieto, president of packaged meats at ConAgra, said two things are driving the double-digit growth at Hebrew National, which recently opened a new state-of-the-art kosher facility in Michigan.
"First and foremost is taste, but number two is that it's 100 percent kosher beef — nothing artificial," said Nieto, who oversees the Hebrew National brand.
He added that sales were being bolstered by non-Jewish customers, who devour the company's hot dogs at hundreds of venues nationwide.
To meet demand, the industry has undergone radical changes, recognizing that kosher food is more than traditionally bland matzos, gefilte fish and borscht.
The transformation was on display in November at Kosherfest 2005, a convention in New York that drew more than 6,100 retail and food-service buyers, manufacturers and distributors from 36 countries.
"Anything that can be made kosher, is being made kosher," said Menachem Lubinsky, who founded Kosherfest. "Even the Chinese are going kosher."
Lubinsky said supermarkets are helping to drive the industry because they're buying into kosher as a leading category of ethnic and specialty foods.
Kosher dumpling wrappers? No problem. Asian sesame ginger noodle and Thai chili sauce? They got it. Italian kosher. It's in abundance: penne rigate, lasagna, angel hair, and all enriched with soy protein.
There is also a kosher energy drink called "Kabbalah."
And it seems like almost everyone is selling hummus, the Mideast chick-pea dip.
"Today, all the hippies buy this stuff," said Nissim Ohana, who distributes products from Sabra Go Mediterranean, one of the biggest hummus brands, produced by Blue & White Food Products in New York.
"Hummus has become a very hot item," said Ohana, who has been selling kosher food for 20 years in the United States.
In two decades, Ohana, an Israeli, has seen the number of Brooklyn stores purchasing his kosher food rise from 16 to more than 200.
"Five years ago, it wouldn't have sold," said Frank Widdi, owner of Met Food Markets in Brooklyn. Widdi, a Palestinian, has two separate refrigerators with hummus, including one for Sabra products which he gets from Ohana.
A Palestinian selling kosher hummus?
"Business is business," Ohana says.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company