Kosherfest draws crowds at the Meadowlands

Kosherfest draws crowds at the Meadowlands

An Agri shadow over the kosher industry?

Kosherfest drew thousands to the Meadowlands in Secaucus earlier this week. photos by Josh lipowsky

Visitors to the Meadowlands Exposition Center earlier this week picked up plates full of pareve ice cream, imitation shrimp, hot dogs, and lots of sushi as they met with the leaders of the kosher world.

About 6,000 people journeyed to Secaucus on Tuesday and Wednesday to see the newest products from more than 300 kosher food companies and distributors at the 20th annual Kosherfest, the world’s largest kosher food expo.

While the show’s focus is to highlight new products and companies, the annual showcase could not avoid addressing the impact of Agriprocessors on the kosher industry. The country’s largest kosher meat distributor declared bankruptcy last week after a federal immigration raid in the spring led to months of reduced production, negative publicity, and criminal investigations of the company’s management. New York-based Lubicom Business Consulting, which sponsors Kosherfest, had until recent months represented Agriprocessors in the public relations world.

Lubicom CEO Menachem Lubinsky.

Menachim Lubinsky, Lubicom’s president and CEO, addressed the impact of Agriprocessors almost immediately during Kosherfest’s opening lecture.

Lubinsky cited his own research that concluded the image of the kosher industry as a whole had not been hurt by the scandals. Kosher sales did better during this year’s High Holy Day period than they did in the past four years, he said.

When The Jewish Standard asked him to elaborate, he said Agriprocessors’ troubles have “reflected on Agriprocessors but not on the kosher industry.”

When supermarkets initially conceived of a separate kosher section, they identified three necessary elements: meat and poultry, a bakery, and fish.

David Rossi of Manischewitz shows the company’s new, commemorative matzoh box.

“It is important to understand that one of the models that the supermarket industry had established in moving so forcefully into kosher was the idea that the kosher consumer would not need to make more than one stop in shopping for their kosher needs,” he said.

“Prior to that model the kosher customer would have to make a stop at the butcher, make a stop at the bakery, make a stop at the fish store, maybe go to a produce place, then go to the supermarket,” he said, adding that “shopping was somehow an all-day ordeal.”

Agriprocessors helped supermarkets build their kosher sections by distributing its products to small communities outside of the metropolitan areas, which made it more convenient for people to get kosher meat.

“So when this Agriprocessors explosion happened, suddenly one of the three elements of that supermarket had a problem,” he said. “Supply is no longer consistent.”

The Agriprocessors ordeal is not over, he reminded attendees. But despite the company’s troubles, the kosher industry has seen an 8 percent to 10 percent growth in the past year, he said.

“The bottom line is that kosher continues to be a growth category,” he said.

Other insiders at Kosherfest agreed that Agriprocessors had left a mark on the kosher industry but the industry could recover.

“It questions what the industry is about,” said Elie Rosenfeld, of New York-based Joseph Jacobs, which represents Empire Poultry, Manischewitz, and ShopRite. “I think the industry has done as good a job as it can saying you can’t judge an entire industry by one company.”

“There are people out there going, ‘Is this what kosher is really about?’ [The industry is] doing a good job of showing the food world and showing consumers that don’t particularly buy kosher that this is not the way kosher companies are run and it’s not the way mass-marketed companies that have kosher certification are run,” he added.

Addressing rumors that Empire plans to expand into the meat industry, Rosenfeld said the company has been looking at that option for about a year, but even with Agriprocessors effectively off the market, Empire is not rushing into a decision to join the meat industry.

“The opportunity is there to say yes,” he said. “We’re looking to see how we can answer that.”

David Rossi, vice president of marketing at the Secaucus-based Manischewitz Company, said he doesn’t see his company being affected by Agriprocessors’ alleged misdeeds.

Royal Wine Corp. of Bayonne was one of more than 300 companies at Kosherfest.

“There are always going to be people who are not trying to uphold the highest levels of kashrus and business practices,” he said. “You’re going to see that 99.9 percent of the people here are doing the right thing, and that’s really what’s important.”

Nora Schultz, president of Naturally Nora, a manufacturer of cake and frosting mixes based in Princeton, began production in May and she wanted kosher certification immediately, which she got from the Orthodox Union. She doesn’t know if Agriprocessors has damaged the perception of kosher products as better and more healthful.

“We’re seeing better quality than ever before,” she said. “People are realizing kosher is not enough.”

The image of the kosher industry wasn’t the only focus at Kosherfest. As in years past, many came out to see new products or introduce themselves to the industry.

Kevin Cohnen, owner of New York’s Eden Wok, was happy to find a new sweet chili sauce imported from Thailand with an OU stamp on it.

“We always find a couple new products we didn’t know were kosher and end up using them,” he said.

Although Manischewitz, Kedem, and Osem had large displays set up, Joseph Jacobs’ Rosenfeld said that increasing numbers of the exhibitors at Kosherfest are smaller and newer companies.

“Some of the larger companies are either not here or are scaling back,” he said. “They feel – and rightfully so – that they’re well known in the industry. They take this opportunity to launch new products or reintroduce an item.”

Many small manufacturing companies come to Kosherfest without any distribution in place and look to build their business, he added.

This was the first time at Kosherfest for John Fissinger, president of Pottstown, Pa.-based Betts Food Products. The company, which makes a line of gourmet cheese spreads, went kosher almost two years ago. The company had never gone after a kosher market before but a Philadelphia store-owner told Fissinger that Kosherfest was “the place to be.”

“It’s been amazing,” he said. “We’ve never gotten this kind of response before. I think it’s going to do wonders for us.”

The move out of New York City, where the showcase had been held in recent years, was a draw for some companies.

Jay Buchsham, vice president of marketing for the Bayonne-based Royal Wine Corp., said easier parking and lower costs made this year’s Kosherfest more attractive than past conventions in New York.

The kosher industry does not expect to escape unscathed from the country’s economic downturn. Some at Kosherfest were optimistic, though, that the crisis could have a positive side effect.

“Hopefully folks will cook at home a little bit more,” said Manischewitz’s Rossi. “Hopefully they’ll come home and see some of the Manischewitz products that can help them.”

Rabbi H.Z. Senter, head of the Kof-K.

Many at Kosherfest took note of the variety of international products now bearing certification. Rabbi H.Z. Senter, executive administrator of the Teaneck-based Kof-K Kosher Supervision, said consumers are “living in a global village” with products made all over the world.

“Kosher food used to practically restricted to Jewish ethnic food,” he said. “This is no longer the case,” he added, pointing to an assortment of Asian and European products.

Royal Wine’s Buchsham said the appeal of kosher products is much greater than in years past and companies are responding.

“Kosher companies are now making product that really can cross the aisle and is more desirable for kosher and non-kosher consumers alike,” he said.

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