- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

NEW YORK - When Albertson’s hired Yakov Yarmove more than three years ago, the company found a point man to navigate what might seem like an unlikely market for a grocery chain with stores in places like Cheyenne, Wyo., and Evanston, Ill.: kosher food.

Albertson’s, one of the nation’s largest grocery chains, has since dramatically expanded kosher aisles at hundreds of its supermarkets across the country. The company also has launched more than two dozen kosher destination stores that include everything from bakeries to delis.

“There’s a kosher awakening,” said Mr. Yarmove, an observant Jew who is corporate kosher, marketing and operations manager for Albertson’s. “Kosher was perceived as scary and foreign. Now it’s perceived as chic. I think everybody is realizing that there is an opportunity.”

The Idaho-based Albertson’s — which soon may have a new owner — is just one of many companies around the country competing to get a lucrative slice of the kosher industry. The approximately $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 the year over the same time last year, to $424.8 billion, according to the Food Marketing Institute.

Experts say the boom is being fueled by several factors, including vegetarians and younger customers looking for healthier 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 city’s 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 thought the food was better for them — almost double the number in a similar study that Miss Mogelonsky conducted in 2003.

“They trust the kosher symbol like they’d trust the Good Housekeeping seal,” she said.

Part of the trust, Miss Mogelonsky said, is derived from how the animals are raised. According to Jewish law, they cannot be pumped with antibiotics, additives or hormones and cannot be fed animal byproducts.

Companies have not overlooked the advantages of selling kosher, which means that the food was prepared under Jewish dietary laws.

Manischewitz, one of the best-known kosher-food companies in the world, is developing an advertising campaign that says its name is “Jewish for good food.”

Hebrew National, a division of ConAgra Foods, always has touted that famous tag line 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 factors 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 No. 2 is that it’s 100 percent kosher beef — nothing artificial,” Mr. Nieto said, who oversees the Hebrew National brand.

He added that sales were being bolstered by non-Jewish customers, who devour the company’s popular hot dogs at hundreds of venues across the United States.

To meet demand, the industry has undergone radical changes to appeal to the tastes of more consumers, recognizing that kosher food is more than traditionally bland matzos (known as the bread of affliction), gefilte fish and borscht. The transformation was on display last month in New York at Kosherfest 2005, a convention 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.”

Mr. 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 have 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 Middle Eastern chickpea dip.

If any one food is leading the kosher charge, it might be hummus.

“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 Mr. Ohana, who has been selling kosher food for 20 years in the United States.

In two decades, Mr. 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 Foodmarkets in Brooklyn.

Mr. Widdi, a Palestinian, now has two separate refrigerators with hummus, including one for Sabra products that he gets from Ohana.

A Palestinian selling kosher hummus?

“Business is business,” Mr. Ohana says.

At Streit’s, the venerable New York company is adapting to the changing environment, producing Mediterranean, spelt and five-grain matzos, along with spreads like sun-dried tomato morsels.

“Chains carry it,” said Alan Adler, director of operations at Streit’s, which has been making matzos since 1925. “We are having trouble baking enough matzos.”

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