SELLING KOSHER

CHICAGO -- Kosher fresh departments require a firm commitment by all levels of management, since it represents one of the highest thresholds of customer trust, retailers have found. The process of building and operating kosher in the perishables categories involves many exacting steps, culminating in an official designation by an approved certification organization.In opening its first kosher store,

CHICAGO -- Kosher fresh departments require a firm commitment by all levels of management, since it represents one of the highest thresholds of customer trust, retailers have found. The process of building and operating kosher in the perishables categories involves many exacting steps, culminating in an official designation by an approved certification organization.

In opening its first kosher store, Jewel-Osco embarked on a learning experience that was made easier with valuable assistance from its parent, Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, which operates about a dozen kosher-format departments in stores across the United States. As a result, the One-Stop Kosher Experience at Jewel-Osco's Highland Park store on Deerfield Road has gotten off to an impressive start since its grand opening in August.

"The community appreciates the fact that they can buy all their kosher needs in a full-service supermarket and don't need to make multiple trips," said Andrew Kramer, director of ethnic marketing for Albertson's in metro Chicago. "They trust that the quality and the overall package is a great value for them."

The trust issue was central to constructing the kosher store-within-a-store, according to the retailer. When executives last year decided to deepen their commitment to the Jewish community by adding a live kosher deli and meat department to the existing store, they first needed expert help. That's because the most crucial aspect of making the investment a success would be hiring the right person to serve as the mishgiach, the rabbi in charge of the kosher department. He not only would have complete authority over its operation but also would represent the store to the Jewish customer base the chain was trying to court.

Rabbi Hershey Reichman turned out to be Jewel-Osco's man. He had served as mishgiach for one of the first kosher departments operated by Albertson's in the Chicago area a few years earlier, so he certainly understood the importance of the role.

"He's got a very strong understanding of how to manage a kosher store within a conventional format because he's had extensive experience doing just that," said Kramer. "And he's a very religious person who lives in the heart of the Jewish community here.

"He also has a great ability to get along with all types of people. He's already integrated well into the entire store and has made friends and associates with the entire store. He's clearly focused on the kosher piece, but he really is able to reach out to the rest of the store."

But while Reichman has managed to enlist the enthusiasm and support of the entire Highland Park operation behind what he's doing in the kosher department, by definition the only way the kosher enterprise can succeed is by excelling at operational segregation. That's what his customers are expecting because that's what kosher is all about: establishing a distinct physical entity that is devoted to receiving, preparing, storing and selling goods according to the strictures of traditional Jewish dietary law.

For Jewel-Osco, that required not only finding and hiring Reichman but also building separate deli, meat, dairy and bakery departments that essentially are duplicates of the facilities that the store already was operating for the general population. The initiative also has called upon Jewel-Osco to demonstrate an entire range of extra sensitivities, from how associates handle kosher products and customers to how the very success of Rabbi Reichman's operation may affect the independent kosher grocers who generally are beloved in the community.

The kashruth, or body of Jewish dietary laws, evolved out of history and out of how Jews observed occasions such as holidays and the sabbath. For example, one primary sabbath -- or shabbat -- rule is the prohibition against removing unwanted parts of a mixture, such as the bones from fish, which resulted in the development of gefilte fish. Another is the rule against putting things up to cook on the sabbath, which led to the development of a range of stews and other such dishes that could be long-cooked.

Other basic concepts of kosher food are that dairy and meat products cannot be mixed; a prohibition against pork and pork products and shellfish; and a ban on food products containing banned ingredients, such as a food coloring made from shellfish. If products are considered non-kosher, their status taints even the smallwares and implements used in making them.

It's a tall order to fill for a regional retailer. So when Albertson's acquired Jewel-Osco in 1999, Jewel-Osco executives took advantage of the new parent's expertise and experience to work in improving offerings at the dozen or so Jewel-Osco stores with strong Jewish patronage. Located in the heart of one such area on the north side of Chicago, the Highland Park store had been open about a year and a half. Understanding the demographics of the neighborhood, Jewel-Osco already offered an extensive array of prepackaged kosher goods, including Glatt kosher meats.

But feedback from Jewish customers compelled store management to continually re-assess and expand the variety of kosher products they offered.

"People were looking for things like refrigerated dessert items, breads and rolls, especially some specific types of kosher products that Orthodox consumers were demanding," Kramer told SN. "We'd be hearing, 'Prepackaged meat is great, but in a perfect world, we'd like to have it freshly cut at the store, and get greater variety in what's available.' The quantity of people who did that confirmed our suspicion that, if we offered more, there could be greater opportunity."

Jewel-Osco began collaborating with the local authorities of the Orthodox Union, the body that regulates the production and sale of kosher foods nationwide, about how it might better serve the Jewish population with a "live" kosher department in a store in the general area. The trick was in selecting a location where such a department would be able to succeed in business, but not harm the pre-existing population of small, independent kosher grocers that already were serving the community. The Highland Park location was perfect in that regard, Kramer said.

Physically adding the department to handle kosher perishables and unpackaged goods was the first step in the conversion, which began about a year ago. The ability to securely control the reception and storage of kosher-produced goods from pre-approved vendors is paramount to maintaining the separation that kosher demands. It requires completely distinct deli, meat and baking departments, to which access is totally controlled by Rabbi Reichman.

"He has to verify at all times that all the products are kosher and that, for example, there is no contamination between meat and pareve" items, such as fish, eggs, vegetables and fruits, Kramer said.

Each kosher department also requires its own back room for keeping overstocked products refrigerated.

Employee training was another issue; in this case, the total kosher department requires about 25 people. Kramer said that, while they aren't specially trained ahead of time to handle or sell kosher products, "obviously, anyone who's going to work in any of our shops will have to have some sensitivity to the needs of the business."

He added that consumers in general have become more inquiring of staffers as to what the attributes of various food products are -- kosher or non-kosher.

"People ask lots of questions of the staff people we have working in our regular deli as well," he said. "Whether you're selling kosher or non-kosher sliced turkey, it's the same fundamentals. And there's always going to be someone there to provide that extra information. The same with the kosher department."

But in the case of the kosher department, it's the mishgiach who's called upon to answer customers' questions and in whom Jewish customers ultimately are investing their trust.

"He's very visible," Kramer said of Rabbi Reichman. "He answers customers' questions about what he's doing, about what we're doing. His role is crucial."

The kosher department now features thousands of items, including more than 500 new products that were introduced as part of the expansion, ranging from rotisserie chicken and turkey breasts to smoked fish, matzo balls, broiled salmon, kugel, chopped liver, potato salad and hummus, Kramer said.