Friday, December 15, 2006

NEWARK, N.J. — Four months before the holiday, the Passover season has already begun at Manischewitz, the 118-year-old brand known around the world for matzo, gefilte fish, chicken soup and sweet wine.

But as its matzo factory annually churns out 75.6 million sheets of unleavened bread in 14 flavors for its core Jewish customers, company leaders are creating a new strategy: Turning a staid brand into more a contemporary, perhaps even trendy, one.

The country’s largest manufacturer of processed kosher foods is trying to grow by offering kosher options in line with today’s gourmet trends — flavored olive oil, wasabi horseradish sauce and whole-grain noodles — as well as appealing to non-Jewish consumers who buy kosher food because they think it is cleaner or like the dairy-free options.

“It’s not your bubbe’s matzo and gefilte fish anymore,” said Jeremy Fingerman, president and chief executive officer of the privately held R.A.B. Food Group of Secaucus, N.J., which acquired the Manischewitz brand in 1998.

Non-Jews represent one of the fastest-growing sectors in the kosher market. They are looking for healthier food options, similar to growth in the organic or natural foods market.

Kosher describes food that is permissible to eat under Jewish dietary laws. For example, milk and meat cannot be mixed, and utensils that touch meat cannot be used with dairy. All of Manischewitz’s factories are overseen by rabbis, who regularly inspect food, ingredients and machinery to ensure they meet all kosher specifications.

“Kosher is perceived as being cleaner, better, purer,” Mr. Fingerman said. However, he does not promise it is healthier.

In addition to new products at Manischewitz, R.A.B. Food Group’s growth comes from acquiring smaller kosher labels and the consolidation of operations at a renovated, more modern plant in Newark. Last May, it acquired the 136-year-old Rokeach brand, whose holdings include Mother’s, Mrs. Adler’s and Mishpacha, adding to R.A.B.’s other kosher lines of Goodman’s and Horowitz Margareten.

It is also working to gain a foothold in the “specialty food market” by buying or creating more ethnic and gourmet brands, such as Guiltless Gourmet, Asian Harvest and Season, a line of canned fish. Company chairman Richard A. Bernstein said R.A.B. is working on a deal to acquire the U.S. rights to import and distribute an upscale tea brand in North America.

Manischewitz, the premium brand of the kosher conglomerate, will continue to offer more products with appeal to the broader market, he said. The wasabi horseradish sauce, on the shelves for only two years, is already outselling its traditional horseradish sauce, a Passover staple.

“Americans are much more adventurous in what they’re willing to try and eat,” Mr. Bernstein said. “We’re trying to be more contemporary both for the core consumer but also be attractive to the non-Jewish consumer.”

R.A.B. Food Group gross sales are up, from $68 million five years ago to about $100 million now, company officials said. The Manischewitz brand makes up an estimated 54 percent of the R.A.B. sales, and about 15 percent of all sales come from matzo distributed to more than 20 countries.

Manischewitz’s foray into other areas of the supermarket besides the kosher aisle won’t be easy, said Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior analyst at Mintel, a market research firm in Chicago, which estimates the market of certified kosher foods in the U.S. to be $40 billion.

She said the company has to sell itself as more than an ethnic company, yet not alienate its traditional customers.

“Manischewitz has such a strong identity as an ethnic Jewish food company, and even more so as a ‘Jewish holiday’ company,” she said. “If it wants to transition into the ‘specialty food’ world or even the mainstream supermarket it has to downplay part of that heritage.”

Around Passover, Manischewitz products are found in many Jewish-American pantries, including in Vera Silver’s New York City home. She usually only buys Manischewitz products, potato starch and matzo meal, during the holiday, and she uses leftovers during the year.

Mrs. Silver, 50, who keeps a kosher home, said she might try the brand’s kosher olive oil, but only if the price is competitive with other olive oils that are certified kosher. She said its new dairy-free kosher cake mix is attractive and would be appealing to several non-Jewish friends who have lactose intolerant children.

The newer products are also bringing in kosher customers like Rayzel Yaish, a 31-year-old mother from Bergenfield, N.J., and a regional winner of Manischewitz’s kosher cook-off contest. The company is sponsoring the contest to encourage creative use of its products, and the winner, to be determined at finals in New York this February, will receive new kitchen appliances. Mrs. Yaish said her winning recipe, a falafel stuffed pepper, used Manischewitz falafel mix, a newer offering, and tomato mushroom sauce.

She said her longtime image of the brand evoked an old-fashioned seder table at Passover.

“Now I would say I really do see the effort they’re trying to make with the newer generation,” said Mrs. Yaish, who has a doctorate in clinical health psychology and works at a Jewish school in North Jersey. “Now it’s more contemporary and cutting edge.”

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