KOSHER GOES MAINSTREAM

Kosher foods have come a long way, baby.In the recent past, kosher eaters were typically limited to matzo, borscht, knishes, gefilte fish, salami and maybe a nice lean brisket from the supermarket.But today's shopper can choose egg noodles, cake mixes, frozen entrees, chocolates, toaster pastries, salty snacks, breakfast cereals, salsa, jelly, balsamic vinegar and even a complete line of Oriental

Kosher foods have come a long way, baby.

In the recent past, kosher eaters were typically limited to matzo, borscht, knishes, gefilte fish, salami and maybe a nice lean brisket from the supermarket.

But today's shopper can choose egg noodles, cake mixes, frozen entrees, chocolates, toaster pastries, salty snacks, breakfast cereals, salsa, jelly, balsamic vinegar and even a complete line of Oriental foods from the array of kosher offerings in the grocery aisles.

In short, kosher's leaning toward the mainstream, and some retailers are broadening their assortments and adjusting their merchandising to reflect the trend.

In interviews with retail grocery decision-makers and leading vendors, two consumer-based forces emerged as accelerating the mainstream trend. One is that "traditional" kosher eaters are seeking more choices; the other is that more "nontraditional" consumers are awakening to the appeal of safety and wholesomeness embodied in the kosher concept.

"The kosher consumer wants to be more like Joe Gentile," said a marketing vice president from a major kosher supplier based in New York City. "If Joe Gentile has supermarket frozen pizza, the kosher consumer wants to have it, too, but it has to meet his requirement of being certified.

"We have seen kosher producers making very aggressive moves toward just that -- being able to offer the same exact product that is now non-kosher in a kosher format."

"There is definitely a trend for line extensions and nontraditional kosher products," said Bernard Rogan, a spokesman for Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass. "As a result, our kosher food sales have been growing.

"We are basically attributing this to the quest on the part of consumers for quality and for some official designation that the food is safe and of a high-quality nature.

"In most minds, certification is equivalent to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. One thing that we look at for our own private-label program is whether the company is kosher or not," Rogan said. Some of the retailers contacted by SN said the new generation of kosher foods sold briskly during Passover, marking a new level of acceptance.

"The new kosher items sold pretty well over Passover. The old standard cake mixes, cookies and cakes are sort of dying, because they taste awful. That is what is driving the manufacturers to come out with new products," said Mark Polsky, senior vice president at Magruder Inc., Rockville, Md.

"Over this past Passover, we had some doughnut mixes that were hot. We absolutely couldn't keep the egg noodles in the store, they were so popular," he said, adding that his kosher departments are large relative to total store area.

"There are a lot of new recipes coming out, and the auxiliary items, like chocolate chips and that type of things, are selling because people are making their own recipes," Polsky noted.

"Most of the new foods offered for Passover this year sold very well," said Emily G. Holdstein, senior vice president at Wonder Market Cos., Worcester, Mass.

"This year we carried fruit-flavored loops, which sold well as it is the only breakfast item for children during Passover. Pasta for Passover is now in its second year, and sales increased by 20% over last year. We have kosher pasta in both frozen and dry bagged in grocery.

"But one new item which did not do that well was salsa. Sales were limited due to the lack of a kosher-for-Passover tortilla chip," she said.

A compilation of data from various media reports shows that the U.S. kosher food industry is growing at an annual rate of 15%, with current sales of $33 billion. Currently some 26,000 prepared food items are formally certified as being kosher, with an additional 1,000 products receiving certification every year.

There are roughly 6 million U.S. consumers who will only purchase items that are strictly kosher. American Jews consume only 30% of all strictly kosher food products, with the rest being consumed by Moslems, Seventh-Day Adventists and mainstream consumers, statistics show.

Some retailers, such as Dave Wolff, vice president of dairy operations at Hughes Family Markets, Irwindale, Calif., said although the influx of mainstream products have been slow to reach many areas outside of New York City, those that have made it out of New York are selling.

"I have seen the mainstream kosher products do very well, given the limited amount that we have out here," said Wolff, adding that the standouts are a cup of noodles, toaster pastries and canned soups.

Retailers said they used a variety of merchandising tactics to sell their kosher foods. While the assortments are broadening, the action is still very much seasonal, centering on major Jewish holidays.

"We merchandise them in a separate kosher section, and within the section [the mainstream items] are integrated in with the other kosher foods," said Wolff at Hughes. "For holidays we merchandise whichever one is appropriate for the specific holiday, whether Passover, Rosh Hashana or Hanukkah." He added that kosher foods are carried in each of Hughes' 52 stores.

"We change our kosher assortments according to the holidays," said Patrick T. Rice, grocery merchandiser at Winn-Dixie Stores' Tampa, Fla., division. "We display a full line on the white paper during the holiday time. While our population of kosher shoppers isn't large, it is growing and warrants us carrying the products. The population is in pockets, and we tailor our assortments accordingly."

Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., chooses to merchandise more unusual kosher dry groceries in isolation at a special location separate from its nonkosher counterparts.

However, if an item is in a category where kosher is more common, such as in egg noodles, it will be integrated with other similar products. "This way our customers know where to look for it," said Barbara Page, manager of consumer and public relations at Price Chopper.

"We do make space in all of our stores around the holidays for certain kosher items, with the amount of kosher we carry really depending on the neighborhood. We have done focus groups and have the neighbors come together and talk about their needs. If it is an area of many kosher buyers, we put more items in," she said.

Page said Price Chopper carries kosher foods year-round, and sees less of a seasonal emphasis linked to the newer mainstream products. Egg noodles sold well during Passover, for example, but there wasn't a big demand for other mainstream products because they didn't fit into a traditional Passover Seder supper, she said. Rogan of Shaw's said the chain caters to a large concentration of Jewish customers in its operating area, especially in Greater Boston.

"Typically we have our kosher foods in a separate section. Around the holidays it is end-of-aisle. However, the trend is to extend some of these items out onto the shelf with other simi-

lar mainstream items," Rogan said.

Holdstein of Wonder Market Cos. said some kosher foods, such as Goodman's noodles, are carried every day, while others are brought in for the holidays. "During the holidays, we expand our variety to include all widths and sizes. For example, cake mixes are increased from the everyday yellow and chocolate to 17 varieties for Passover, including microwave cakes, muffin mixes and griddle cakes. New items are often presented, and accepted, for holidays.

"It is important to remember that there are Jewish products, and kosher products. Jewish ethnic foods are merchandised separately, while many kosher pro-

ducts can be integrated into grocery sections," she said. Bob Costello, director of grocery purchasing and merchandising at D'Agostino Supermarkets, Larchmont, N.Y., said the kosher assortments in his stores are limited because of a shortage of shelf space. However, Costello and others said kosher items tend to offer good margins, in some cases as much as 25%.