Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Kosher Butcher Is Last of a Breed 

Yuval Atias is the last of the Bay Area's independent kosher butchers.

In the 2000s, four kosher butcher shops in the region disappeared, said Mr. Atias. Most recently, Tel Aviv Kosher in San Francisco's Outer Sunset district closed right before Passover this year. That left Mr. Atias's Oakland Kosher Foods as the last independent kosher butcher shop in the area.

Competition still exists for the Israeli-born Mr. Atias, however. He is now squaring off against Trader Joe's and several other supermarket chains.

David Bennett, co-owner of Mollie Stone's Markets, a small supermarket chain, started selling kosher meat 20 years ago at the company's Palo Alto shop. He said he makes a very small profit on kosher meat, but sells it because he looks for different niches to entice customers to shop at his store.

Sue Fishkoff, an Oakland resident and the author of "Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America's Food Answers to a Higher Authority," said supermarkets started selling kosher-certified chicken in the 1970s and beef in the 1980s.

There are between 11 million and 13 million U.S. consumers who look for kosher-certified products, Ms. Fishkoff said, according to a 2009 study by a market-research firm. Of those consumers, only 14% are observant Jews. Kosher products can include anything from flour to ketchup to bread. Because kosher supervision requires the strict separation of dairy and meat products, it also appeals to people who are lactose-intolerant and to some vegetarians who consume dairy and want to be sure there are no meat derivatives in their food.

As national chains began selling more kosher products, older Jews committed to supporting the local butcher shop were replaced by younger consumers accustomed to buying all their groceries in supermarkets.

"The older people were more observant and they were coming every week to buy something, even if it was small," said Mr. Atias, 43 years old, who started working in Oakland Kosher Foods as a stock boy in 1991.

Kosher meat and chicken, which typically cost more than the non-kosher variety, must be ritually slaughtered according to rabbinic law. There isn't a kosher slaughterhouse in California, so Mr. Atias procures his raw meat and chicken from Uruguay, Canada, New York and Chicago.

The decline of kosher butchers is "probably like the mom-and-pop hardware stores being put out of business by the big supply stores," said Rabbi Marv Goodman, executive director of the Northern California Board of Rabbis.

While the shift toward shopping in supermarkets has happened all over the country, Jewish communities from New York to Los Angeles still can support scores of kosher butcher shops. The Bay Area's Jewish population numbers well over 300,000, according to the most recent estimates by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco and the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, but few Jews say keeping kosher is a priority.

"The Bay Area simply does not have the critical mass of observant Jews that most major metropolitan areas in the U.S. have," Ms. Fishkoff said.

Rabbi Dovid Labkowski of the Chabad Jewish Center of Oakland said the Jewish community in the Bay Area tends to be less stringent about Jewish law than in other parts of the country. "In the Bay Area, everything is more light," he said. "The Orthodox is a little more light. The Conservative is a little more light."

For Mr. Atias, that means he has had to adapt to the times.

Mr. Atias said that since Tel Aviv Kosher closed its doors, he has seen his business increase about 15%, although he declined to give specific figures. He said he has been able to stay profitable by expanding his business to include kosher catering for hotels and the Moscone Center. He also delivers meat all over the Bay Area.

"It feels good that we survived and we're probably doing the right thing," he said.


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