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My Sixth Sense…by Menachem Lubinsky
I have become used to the discontent voiced by many Brooklyn retailers about the “unfair competitive environment” in neighborhoods like Flatbush. This was the case when Shop Rite opened many years ago. Local stores argued that the chain had created an “unleveled playing field” and was sure to put some of them out of business. Shop Rite went on to become one of the more successful stores in the Wakefern network and none of the smaller retailers closed. Next came the voices against Pomegranate, the upscale gourmet kosher supermarket that opened in August 2008. While it did in many respects change the face of kosher retail in the area, it did not force any significant closings.
This week, I heard it again when it was announced that Moisha’s Kosher Discount Supermarket was to receive $1.93 million to double its size on Avenue M in Midwood. According to press reports, the money comes from New York City’s Food Retail Expansion to Support Health program – which targets neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn, northern Manhattan, the South Bronx and other neighborhoods where fresh food is hard to find. Even though Moisha’s is outside the target zone, city officials say the neighborhood counts as “underserved.” Several City Councilman protested that the grant went against the purpose of the support. The Daily News counted 10 markets within 5 blocks of the store, all selling fresh fruits and vegetables. City officials pointed to a study showing the neighborhood had “moderate need” for supermarkets, and fewer markets per person than the city average. Once again, my kosher retailers cried foul, but like Shop Rite and Pomegranate, it is unlikely to force them out of business and the ultimate winners will once again be the kosher customer.
My Sixth Sense…by Menachem Lubinsky
Emily, a Long Island housewife, was about to use an ingredient in a cake that she was preparing when her daughter picked up the box but could not find a kosher symbol. Emily was puzzled since she had picked up the product on the kosher shelf of a local supermarket. It turned out that the product was not kosher certified. Almost daily, unsuspecting consumers are subject to this type of confusion in kosher that is so often the subjects of alerts and warnings posted by kashrus agencies. Since the beginning of the year, the OK Kosher Certification advised that some Kroeger Value Semi Sweet Chocolate Chips were mistakenly packed with the OK Pareve kosher symbol when the product was dairy. Imagine the surprise of some kosher consumers when they found “shrimp” in sardines. The OU warned that General Mills is discontinuing the OU-D kosher certification from all sizes of Bugles Original due to operational changes at the production sites, and will no longer be certified. Now comes the issue of stores that will still have the product with the OU as opposed to those who will have the newly labeled non kosher products.
Despite all the gains in kosher and the yeomen’s job by kashrus agencies, the kosher consumer is very vulnerable to unexpected bumps. It begs the question of how an industry of that size can allow itself to be unprotected from honest mistakes as well as intentional fraud. I was shocked to see critics of kosher law enforcement suggest that government get out of the business of enforcing kosher food laws. Instead, they say, the community or kosher agencies should do the policing. Never mind that violators are no different than those who disregard truth in advertising or truth in packaging laws. Why not get rid of the Better Business Bureau and other enforcement of abuses and misrepresentations of all products. Let each industry police itself. How ridiculous, particularly in a state like New York that is the center of the kosher food industry in the US. Kosher food consumers deserve the same protection as all consumers do.
By Menachem Lubinsky
It has become fairly common to see two or more kosher certifications on products, primarily to increase the size of the market to include those that have more trust in the added certification. This is particularly true for Chasidic Jews who tend to rely on “Chasidic” certifications. In reality, in most cases, there are no changes made to either the ingredients or the production process. In a sense, the secondary certification merely confirms the integrity of the kashrus worthiness of the product. It has been proven to increase sales for many products.
Not so is the case with the pending Magen Tzedek symbol, which is being introduced by Rabbi Morris Allen, a Conservative rabbi from Minneapolis. The new symbol which is designed to confirm that a kosher product is also produced in accordance with ethical standards developed by the group is not expected to gain any traction with either kosher manufacturers or consumers. During the heat of the Rubashkin scandal, the outcry by the group did not cause any reduction in sales of Agriprocessor products. In fact in a survey of 25 retail establishments in 12 states just weeks after a government raid on the Postville IA plant, none of the stores even reported any complaints that the products were carried by the store. The criteria for all categories of kosher consumers were then what it always is: price, quality and kashrus.
It is not clear who the group is targeting since most of the nation’s kosher products are produced by giant food producers who certainly meet the tests of the Magen Tzedek standards. That would potentially leave only the smaller kosher producing companies who are unlikely to assume the burden of a new tax by Conservative rabbis. In promoting his new symbol, Rabbi Allen took a nasty swipe at kashrus agencies who have responsibly contributed mightily to the growth of kosher. He told the Forward: “This is a serious religious undertaking to help restore a culture of kashrus in America. “ This is one certification that is certifiably DOA, as it should be when it tries to usurp the traditional role of kashrus supervision and the oversight of government on labor, health, and animal welfare.
My Sixth Sense
By Menachem Lubinsky
With less than two weeks to Chanukah (yes, it begins early this year, on the eve of December 1st) many retailers are scrambling to merchandise the traditional foods and gift items that define the 8-day holiday. “Chanukah is extremely confusing to my employees,” a kosher supermarket owner told me. It seems that unlike Passover when there are weeks of preparation and then the store closes for at least 2-days, on Chanukah the store remains open throughout and gifts are given the entire 8-days. While many stores recognize the opportunity to connect with their Jewish customers, which is why they “invest” in an electric menorah, they are not exactly sure how to merchandise Chanukah. Do they make the effort to display a fresh assortment of doughnuts, highlight frozen pancakes or pancake mix, make up their own gift baskets and so forth. The answer is, of course yes to all of the above and the more effort they dedicate for the holiday, the better they will do.
Yakov Yarmove of SuperValu makes sure that his stores have something for everyone in the free standing ads he helps prepare. There are chocolate coins and dreidels for the kids and all the necessary ingredients for “latkes” (potato pan cakes). While not in Passover’s league (from the point of view of sales), Chanukah has become a huge gift-giving holiday with enormous opportunities for all segments of the food industry, including the growing number of on-line gift stores. I recall seeing the stat that Hallmark sells more Chanukah cards than any other religiously themed cards. Many stores have mastered the Chanukah merchandising with a front-of-store display of the foods, dreidels, coins and other goodies to go along with specials on ingredient items for pancakes as well as the obligatory apple sauce. If you are into kosher, Chanukah is most definitely part of the mix, but it is important to make plans for a good marketing and merchandising effort and not to rely on miracles!
My Sixth Sense…by Menachem Lubinsky
Lost in the aisles upon aisles of booths at Kosherfest was a group of exhibitors who you might say were the anchors of the show and icons of the kosher food industry. Despite mergers, acquisitions, and the demise of many brands over the last decades, there were the families that helped shape the kosher food industry. At the Kedem booth, there was David Herzog, his nephew Nathan Herzog and David’s son Mordy. Despite its meteoric rise, the family flavor has been very much retained. At the Streit’s booth, descendants Aaron Gross and Aaron Yegoda were showing off many of heir new products as they take the Lower East Side Matzoh manufacturer to a whole new level. Morris Setton still greets passersby with his fresh almonds, pistachios, and other nuts. Aba Klein of Klein’s Ice Cream had three generations of Kleins in his booth. Who would have believed that the kosher ice cream company would be producing 300 different products, some in conjunction with large food manufacturers. The Klein’s of Oh! Nuts were also represented by two generations of Kleins. There were many other families who we have come to love and respect over the years.
The newest family that is also hoping to build a legacy is Montreal businessman Hershy Friedman, who acquired the bankrupt Agriprocessor and has in recent weeks been applauded for the quality of his Aaron’s Best products. Mr. Friedman was an instant celebrity at the show, despite a long history of being a successful businessman and generous philanthropist. There were other kosher notables in the aisles like Rabbi Yehuda Perl, who has successfully taken Sabra hummus mainstream. One notable absence was speed-painter Morris Katz, who was a fixture at the show almost from its inception, and who is suffering from an undisclosed illness. Get well soon, Morris. We really missed you!
By Menachem Lubinsky
I was responding to one of the many pre-Kosherfest press interviews I routinely give each year, when one of the questions struck me. “Is the boycott of liberal Jews who disagree with Israeli policy hurting Israeli products in the US?” First off, I was not aware of any organized boycott, particularly by Jews who have historically suffered most from boycotts. Second, the numbers provided by the Israel Export Institute for the first half of 2010 show a significant increase in the export of kosher foods. It reminded me of the reporters who went so far as to argue with me that Jews were “boycotting” Agriprocessor just after the infamous raid and then again when a new heksher tzedek was established by Conservative Jews to confirm that kosher products were produced in plants that were scrupulously observing social justice.
Setting aside any prejudices that I may have against any of these boycotts, there was an attempt to make it appear that the dynamic growth of kosher foods was affected by these campaigns when in fact the numbers showed no such effect. In each instance, I consulted with retailers and wholesalers and could not find an iota of truth that any of these campaigns were having an effect. Even in the days when Agriprocessor was in the news, there was not even a trace of a boycott as customers continued to be guided by quality and price. After a quarter of a century of experience in this industry, I have learned that kosher consumers do not bring their social consciousness to the marketplace. When they look for kosher products, they simply consider how the product will benefit them and at what price. Kosher consumers are too savvy to be taken by people with an agenda that they consider to be suspect and unkosher.
By Menachem Lubinsky
As preparations for Kosherfest went into high gear this week, all eyes are on the New Product Competition scheduled for October 13th. Hundreds of new products were submitted in what has become an important event for kosher food manufacturers. The conventional wisdom, and indeed the evidence supports it, is that winners benefit from being designated best in a given category and certainly when receiving the honors of being “Best in Show.” But to my surprise, I learned that several winners in the past few years are no longer on shelves. What was thought to be automatic is perhaps not so automatic.
In discussing this surprising finding with several distributors, I was relieved to learn that the new product winners that did not make it were a distinct minority. They pointed to several products including at least one “Best in Show” that literally turned around a business. So is there a formula for success? Is there a message for those products that will be crowned winners? It appears that being the winner is only part of a broader marketing effort that includes merchandising, advertising and public relations. Too often a product is left to rest on its laurels without recognizing that the ultimate judge is not the panel that decides the best product but the consumer. Recognizing that simple fact can make the producer of a new and innovative product a true winner!
By Menachem Lubinsky
The Dagim Company, manufacturers of many fish products, recently contributed a significant amount of product to Masbia, a network of kosher soup kitchens founded by Alexander Rappaport and supported by the Metropolitan Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty. Just before Passover, KJ Poultry delivered truckloads of kosher poultry products to various Jewish neighborhoods with large numbers of poor. Sources tell me that many kosher food manufacturers routinely donate products to Masbia, Met Council and other food pantries that help needy Jews with kosher products. They also say that they could use many other products that they are forced to purchase and which puts a strain on their limited budget.
The re-emergence of the soup kitchen is an ominous sign that Jewish poverty has not been relegated to the past. In fact, Met Council says that well over 150,000 Jews live below the federal definition of poverty. While the soup kitchens of another era, in the ‘30’s and ‘50’s, served mainly elderly Jews, today the clients are young families, many victimized by the relentless recession. Some of the “clients” of Masbia are people who at one time were amongst the Middle Class, but as a result of an illness, death, or job loss suddenly find themselves in need of a hot meal in one of the Masbia soup kitchens throughout the city. For those companies that have stepped up to the plate thank you and for those waiting on the on-deck circle the community will no doubt thank you as well.
He was portrayed as a vicious person, one who employs minors and thinks nothing of children handling knives. Even in his federal conviction for bank fraud, he was portrayed as a monster; one that prosecutors argued deserves life imprisonment, a disproportionate sentence for the crimes that he was accused of. After all, who could forget the unprecedented government raid of hundreds of armed law enforcement officials that led to the eventual bankruptcy of Agriprocessor. Shalom Rubashkin was according to a coalition of unions, liberal rabbis, extremist animal rights advocates, and even Church officials nothing short of a villain who perpetrated vicious crimes. Crimes? Not one of the charges made against Mr. Rubashkin in the raid stuck and a jury last week acquitted him of the remaining 68 charges of child labor. The raid, it turns out, was an unbelievable blemish on overzealous law enforcement.
As I look back on this case (and yes I did represent Shalom Rubashkin for a period of time, as it turns out for a just cause), the saddest part of this tragedy is that so many people denied Shalom Rubashkin of a fundamental right: a day in court. He was prejudged, convicted and even hung before evidence was ever presented in court. It behooves me that people who spoke in the name of justice saw nothing wrong with destroying a man, a family, and a business. They were so sure of their cause that they cast aspersions on the ability of government and kashrus organizations to care for animals and laborers. They indeed got their pound of flesh but in the end of the day there should be no question about their destroyed credibility. My hope is that we learned a valuable lesson of never rushing to judgment before a man or woman has had their day in court.