THE LOSHER ALTERNATIVE

Kosher foods continue to increase in popularity in Center Store aisles, because of the foods' religious significance and of customers' growing concern about the healthfulness of the items they buy. Combine these factors with the improvements in taste and packaging of kosher and natural foods, along with an increase in the selections available, and this growth is understandable.Supermarket managers

Kosher foods continue to increase in popularity in Center Store aisles, because of the foods' religious significance and of customers' growing concern about the healthfulness of the items they buy. Combine these factors with the improvements in taste and packaging of kosher and natural foods, along with an increase in the selections available, and this growth is understandable.

Supermarket managers and food industry experts told SN the increase in kosher food sales is likely to continue into the future.

"There are three things driving our sales for our supermarket customers right now," said Jack Porter, vice president of sales for Kehe Food Distributors based in Romeoville, Ill., "and that is the Hispanic market, just because of the increase in the number of Hispanic customers, and the demand for kosher and natural foods."

As far as kosher and natural foods are concerned, there is crossover appeal for both Jewish customers who want to keep a kosher kitchen and non-Jewish customers, he added.

"That's because more people are concerned with the cleanliness and purity of their foods," Porter said. "Because of changing eating habits, people are looking for alternative foods and kosher fits those profiles."

The increase in demand for kosher foods, which has spurred more supermarkets to create a kosher store-within-a-store, has been apparent for about three years and probably will accelerate in the near future, he predicted. "The packaging and taste of these products compared to five years ago has improved dramatically, which makes them more attractive and increases sales."

As many as 10 million people in the United States of all faiths and backgrounds eat kosher foods on a regular basis and millions of others enjoy kosher foods periodically, creating a $5.5 billion market that is growing by 15% a year, according to the New York-based Integrated Marketing Communications, sponsor of this year's Kosherfest 2001 trade show, slated for Nov. 6 to 7 at the Meadowlands Exposition Center, Secaucus, N.J.

The only two kosher products for which ACNielsen -- the market research firm based in Schaumburg, Ill. -- has figures are matzo meals and mixes, which saw a 6.6% increase in sales in supermarkets from $5.7 million for the 52-week period ended Sept. 9, 2000, to $6.1 million for the 52-week period ended Sept. 8, 2001. Kosher table wines, which saw a 2.5% increase from $25.2 million to $25.8 million for the same time periods.

However, supermarkets report even larger increases in overall sales.

Freehold, N.J.-based Foodarama Supermarkets, which is part of the ShopRite banner, has six stores with complete Kosher Experience departments, Rabbi Moishe Chomsky, rabbinical coordinator and supervisor for Foodarama, told SN.

"Our Lakewood, N.J., store may have been the first in the United States to have a complete kosher department," Rabbi Chomsky said. That department dates back to 1984. Another was added in Neptune, N.J., in 1990 and others have been opened since then in Marlboro Township, Edison and Bound Brook, all in New Jersey.

"Each store has a full variety of kosher groceries, deli items, appetizers, fresh meat and fish, snacks and candies," Rabbi Chomsky said.

Stores that have a lot of kosher shoppers keep all the products separated while ones with a little less traffic integrate the kosher products in the center aisles with other non-kosher items, he said.

"The kosher items are also attractive to people on lactose-free diets and some children have special dietary restrictions, such as gluten-free, which the parents can buy in the kosher section without worrying about reading labels," he added.

Special fliers aimed at kosher customers are mailed and made available in stores every other week, he said. In addition, when stores have specials or holiday giveaways on such things as turkeys, kosher customers can receive the same offers by paying a few cents more for the kosher turkey, he said.

"People like the wide variety of items available, especially at Passover, and even people who do not keep kosher kitchens stock up for months ahead," he said.

Camellia Food Stores, which has 35 stores in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and North Carolina with headquarters in Norfolk, Va., has seen a substantial increase in demand for kosher products in recent years, said Judy Lane, buyer-merchandiser for the chain.

"In stores that have a high demand, we have separate sections, which are substantially expanded for Passover and other holidays. In other stores the kosher products are integrated on the regular aisles," she said, "but in both the number of customers shopping kosher has grown."

Growth in kosher sales has been seen for as long as a decade but it has particularly accelerated in supermarkets in the last five years, said Menacham Lubinsky, president of Integrated Marketing Communications, New York.

"We have seen 18 new kosher stores-within-a-store open in supermarkets across the country in the last 12 months," he said.

"Supermarket managers realize if they are located in an area with a large Jewish population, and if they carry kosher products, they can build a loyal customer base," Lubinsky said. "Supermarkets throughout the United States are putting in kosher products. For those people looking for organic foods there is a commonality of interest between organic and kosher. Each type of customer is looking at the products marketed for the other, and, if a supermarket has a large kosher section, the kosher customer has no reason to want to go elsewhere.

"Forty percent of all kosher food sales are connected with Passover when the number of people who want to keep kosher dramatically increases, but those same customers will shop the supermarket the rest of the time also," he added.

Jewel-Osco, an Albertson's company, is one of the chains that has been increasing its presence in the kosher market. As reported previously in SN, Jewel-Osco recently unveiled a full-service Kosher Experience in its Highland Park store near Chicago. The store is the first of its kind in the Chicago area in a leading supermarket chain. The department is under the supervision of the Orthodox Union and has a full-time mashgiach, or supervising rabbi.

Albertson's, based in Boise, Idaho, has 13 designated kosher stores nationwide.

"We knew these were additional services that we could bring to our customers who keep kosher," Karen Ramos, Jewel spokeswoman, told SN just before the new kosher department opened in August.

Likewise, Pathmark Supermarkets now has two stores, one in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, in New York City and another in Monsey, N.Y., that have full kosher departments. Both areas have large Jewish populations from which to draw customers.

"People from all over New York and New Jersey drive to our stores to shop, particularly before Passover," said Rich Savner, director of public affairs for Pathmark, which has 141 stores in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and northern Delaware.

The Monsey store in particular has five full aisles of kosher products. At Sheepshead Bay, a rabbi who serves as kosher consultant is on hand to answer customers' questions.

"These stores are a reflection of our ability to meet the needs of different groups in each marketplace. We can give customers what they need and our analysis shows they will shop the store the rest of the year," Savner said.

In other supermarkets that do not handle quite as many kosher categories, special promotions are reserved for the biggest religious holidays, such as Passover.

"We have an endcap that I use during Passover," said Dave Wilson, director of sales for Dahl's Supermarket in center city in Des Moines, Iowa.

Two Dahl's stores in the central part of the city do most of the kosher business for Dahl's 11 stores.

"We have some kosher shoppers and we do this as a customer service," Wilson said. "We want to give that customer what he needs so that customer will not have to go elsewhere to shop. There is also some crossover appeal for organic and natural foods customers."

Sue Futrell, director of marketing for Blooming Prairie Warehouse in Iowa City, Iowa, a natural and organic food wholesale distributor for the upper Midwest, agreed there is a crossover in customers' interest.

"There is a similar criteria for people who are vegetarians, for instance, and kosher, because vegetarians want to know their products have not been made with meats or meat by-products," she said. "The two customer bases are intertwined. We are seeing more natural foods that are being certified as kosher."

The newest products in that line are herbal supplements that are being prepared to be kosher certified, she said.

"This is a new area that people did not even think to ask for until recently," she said. Meanwhile, Manischewitz Co. reports an increase in sales of its wines, which the company attributes to a number of reasons. Many Muslims look for kosher products, as do Seventh Day Adventists, many of whom are vegetarians. Also, those who are lactose intolerant, vegetarians and health-conscious people are reassured by the kosher label, and a growth in interest in all ethnic foods is spurring sales, according to the kosher wine company.