Kosher foods are no longer seasonal "must-have" sets of matzo, grape juice and gefilte fish. Today's menu includes chipolte tuna, Vidalia onion ranch dressing -- even Irish whiskey.
Retailers interested in expanding their kosher merchandising these days have plenty of options. Highlighting new products is one; stocking imports reflecting global influences is another. Although the strict dietary laws can be demanding on operators, those who persevere are rewarded with repeat sales built on customer trust and respect.
Deciding how far to invest in a kosher department can be tricky because industry statistics show that, while as many as 95% of American Jews keep kosher on major holidays, only about 10% follow the rules year-round. The tremendous gap between the two numbers discourages many retailers from establishing total-store kosher strategies -- but not all.
For example, Rich McMeniman, owner and operator of the ShopRite of Roosevelt Boulevard, Philadelphia, told SN that a recent influx of some 40,000 Israeli Jews into the Delaware Valley area has caused a shift in the products his store offers.
"We're bringing in new items every week, and the fastest-growing segment is the Israeli segment. It probably represents about 50% of our kosher grocery sales," McMeniman said, adding that he has four two-sided aisles of kosher groceries.
The store is supplied by Wakefern Food Corp., a cooperative based in Elizabeth, N.J. Its "Kosher on the Boulevard" section measures 4,500 square feet, and includes 820 linear feet of grocery, 316 of frozens, 72 of packaged lunch meats, a 12-foot service meat and poultry case, 16 feet of service deli salads and prepared foods, and a 16-foot section for self-service packaged fresh meat that is cut in the back.
Such a large presence is not without complications. Of the 5,000 stockkeeping units in the kosher section, around 100 items from Israel need to have Universal Produce Codes added by hand. McMeniman has created in-store labels that checkouts can scan -- a labor-intensive, extra step that he considers worth it.
"People who are traveling to shop with you will certainly buy other things," he said. "You're making an investment in doing it right, and in the long run, I think it's the right thing to do."
A single store may find such a hurdle easier to jump, but not a large chain, said Yakov Yarmove, corporate kosher category manager for Albertsons, Boise, Idaho.
"You can't track what you're selling by stickering over [foreign] UPCs with a price gun," said Yarmove, who has visited McMeniman's store. "There is some software out there that will scan UPC codes from Israel, but it's too expensive to put it in 2,000 stores."
Albertsons currently is concentrating its kosher strategy on convenience.
"Our big mantra now is to make our customers' lives easier," Yarmove said. Items such as macaroni and cheese, shabbos candles, grape juice, frozen fish sticks, pizza and cheese blintzes and, in dairy, sliced kosher American cheese, prepared salads and sliced cold cuts that are ready to go are what he considers core.
Albertsons' Jewel store near Wrigley Field in Chicago is one of the chain's top kosher-selling stores, as well as the new one in Highland Park, Ill., Yarmove said.
After a year and two months with Albertsons, Yarmove has found that "across the country, the authentic or ethnic community is looking for pretty much the same items," even as they welcome new ones.
Matzo, borscht and gefilte fish are out there as basic traditional items, but candies, snacks, juices, marinades, dinner mixes and casseroles can be welcomed as up-to-date additions.
"I put together a national planogram that Albertsons uses across the country, and there's been big growth. People in California love that same marinade that is on the East Coast," Yarmove said.
Langers juices, for example, are in most Albertsons, he said, with an entire line of apple, cranberry and grape, but it's practically unknown on the East Coast. The brand recently introduced a kosher grape juice.
"This is the first year I bought Langers straight across the country, and it was one of our top-selling items," Yarmove said, adding it will be introduced soon to the Acme stores division in the East.
Another new item for him is the Old City Cafe brand of kosher enchiladas, which he finds exciting for the category.
On a recent visit to Israel, Yarmove observed the retail outlets there were "phenomenal" merchandisers, providing a sense of theater that is unsurpassed in the kosher foods world, he said. For example, one supermarket there was a Harry Potter castle in the candy aisle; another had a 50-foot-tall waterfall in the bottled water section.
"Every major chain I went to had something that really shouted. It was a nice experience to pick up tips. As we start to modernize supermarkets, we need to set ourselves apart. You're not going to see stuff like that going on in Wal-Mart," Yarmove said.
Smaller independents would appear to be in a better position to adapt their kosher sections more quickly to changing tastes, demographics and merchandising. In the Northeast, ShopRite stores are frequently cited as good examples of marketing kosher foods. McMeniman said it's because ShopRite stores are individually owned.
"We look at the market, and decide what to do from there."
More than half his customers are Jewish, so his kosher groceries are set up in sections that parallel the rest of the store: All the cookies together, baking ingredients together, snacks, cereals, beverages and a juice section. All the American-made kosher products come from companies with recognized, trusted names, like Manishewitz and Streit's. He said he has gone as far as possible to get suppliers based in traditionally Jewish areas such as Brooklyn and Lakewood, N.J., to bring authentic products so his customers won't have to drive to those places to get them.
"On the West Coast, we don't have anything like ShopRite, although a couple of Ralphs stores have similar destination kosher sections," said Greg Nathanson, vice president of Tzalis Food and Wine, Los Angeles, an importer of food and wine from Israel.
Nathanson, a former distributor with Gourmet Awards, noted there are 800,000 Jews in Southern California, but spread over a radius of roughly 80 miles from Los Angeles. The city's Fairfax-Pico district is the most Jewish, he said, and only in those corridors do retailers merchandise kosher foods.
In Idaho, Oregon and Washington, 85% of the retail chains have at least a four-foot section of traditional foods, like matzo balls and gefilte fish, but there is little total-store presence, Nathanson said.
"So the Jewish community has to find a retailer who's going to extend himself, like Mollie Stone's. That's what makes the West Coast different from the East Coast. Just a few chains can afford to expand their itemization."
Foodarama Supermarkets, Freehold, N.J., is one operator who helps set the standard for expansion. The 24-store chain, another in the ShopRite group, has branded its kosher sets "The Kosher Experience." Customers come from a diverse area stretching from North Africa to western Russia, according to Carl Montanaro, Foodarama's senior vice president, sales and merchandising.
"The store sets emphasize the international aspects of the kosher world. It's really become quite a sophisticated category," he said.
Montanaro helps keep Foodarama's "Kosher Experience" current by literally driving around neighborhoods, visiting synagogues, and talking to rabbis to determine where people are coming from.
Back in the buying and merchandising office, he uses the anecdotal information to keep each store's displays up-to-date, reflecting the preferences of the ethnic Jews who patronize each particular store.
Steven Ravitz, president of Supermarkets of Cherry Hill, Cherry Hill, N.J., owns three stores in Cherry Hill, Mount Laurel and Marlton, all in the southern part of the state. He also uses the "Kosher Experience" umbrella, with a 3,500-square-foot, store-within-a-store format that includes a glatt kosher service meat department.
"We merchandise all of our kosher groceries on traditional shelving in this area, and the only things we carry are those kosher items that are supervised by the highest authorities," he said. "For example, the O.U., Circle K, the Kof-K and Star K. Those agencies certify the types of items we bring in."
The full-time certified kosher supervisor, or mashkiach, must approve any new grocery item that goes on the shelf in the store in Cherry Hill.
"An item that has simply a K on it will not be slotted in that area," Ravitz said. "Our rule is that only a certain grouping of items that fit that mold are permitted."