Sunday, April 13, 2014

Kosher food business is soaring at Passover 

Despite a drop in overall affiliation to nearly all things Jewish, seven out of 10 Jews in the United States plan to attend a seder on Passover, which begins Monday night.

In another finding of a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, most who attend or host the traditional meals are secular — the intermarriage rate hovers near 60 percent — but that hasn’t stopped them from loading up on kosher food for the holiday. There has been a 10 percent annual growth in sales in each of the last five years, according to Menachem Lubinsky, a kosher marketing expert.

Customers who flock to supermarkets and kosher specialty stores seeking matzo, gefilte fish, brisket, and chopped liver have helped propel the holiday into the Super Bowl of Jewish food. Now, 40 percent of annual US sales of kosher food — about $1.1 billion worth — come during Passover, Lubinsky said.

“Where there’s a will there’s a way, there’s a demand for the products,” said Walter Gelerman, co-owner of the Butcherie in Brookline, one of the few independent year-round Greater Boston kosher markets, which is jammed for weeks before Passover.

“People want to keep kosher for the holiday,” said Bill Baptista, store manager at Stop & Shop in Swampscott, which has opened sections of two aisles for Passover goods.

“Everything sells,” said Josh Ruboy, manager of the Butcherie II, a Canton market that’s not affiliated with the similarly named Brookline store.

Along with staples on the shelves, the Canton and Brookline stores cook up a wide range of Passover dishes for those who don’t want to cook.

The holiday seder focuses on telling a story through the Haggadah, an ancient text that guides the ritual meal and tells of the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt. The tradition includes drinking wine at four stages of the story, and eating matzo or unleavened bread to commemorate the Jews who left Egypt in a hurry and didn’t have time to allow their bread to rise. On the dinner table, nearly every food has a meaning — from matzo, which represents humility, to wine, which symbolizes freedom.

While seders are held on the first two nights of the holiday, many Jews eat only kosher for Passover food for the entire eight days of the observance.

Gloria Barbacoff, a Salem therapist, believes the continued popularity of the holiday can be traced to a person’s need to better understand his or her own life and the connection to their family and Judaism through telling the story of Passover.

“It is cathartic on many levels,” she said. “We’re working through themes of slavery and freedom and the process of rebirth on many levels.”

While people will sit down with family and friends to tell the story Monday night, most will wind their way through a full-course menu that traditionally includes gefilte fish with horseradish, chopped liver, wine (or grape juice), chicken soup and matzo balls, brisket, potato kugel, and everything from chocolate macaroons to sponge cake for dessert.

Much of the main menu has stayed the same for generations, but shoppers now have more variety than ever before. Twenty-five years ago, 1,500 kosher for Passover items were sold in America. Back then, Jews who observed ate mostly matzo, eggs, chicken, and meat during the holiday. These days, there are more than 20,000 items, said Lubinsky, who studies the US kosher industry and runs Kosherfest, a food trade show held annually in New Jersey.

Over the last two decades, Lubinsky said, there have been several breakthroughs in food technology, including the use of potato starch, which subsitutes for five kinds of grain — wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye — that are forbidden on Passover.

“For companies the new products have become profit centers,” said Lubinsky, who added that depending on the size of a family, people spend up to $1,300 on Passover food. Trending new products include gluten-free cakes, matzo ball mixes, and cookies; ice cream, pizza, mock bagels, cereals, chips, cheeses, and different types of matzo, said Lubinsky.

Following traditional, year-round kosher rules, meals during the holiday either include meat or dairy, but not both.

The amount of food available can be dizzying even for Gelerman of the Butcherie, which has been selling kosher food since it opened in the 1960s in Brookline. He begins preparing for Passover in December, huddling with distributors to discuss products. About a month before the holiday, he adds 12 workers to his regular staff of 25 employees who restock shelves and cook prepared foods such as chicken soup, knishes, latkes, kugels, grass-fed briskets, roasts, and barbecue chickens.

While supermarkets may stock some of the same items, Gelerman could be the king of variety. He carries at least 10 different kinds of soups, kugels, cakes, spices, gefilte fish, TV dinners, and wines ranging from $5 for good old Manischewitz to a $150 bottle of red Château Léoville-Poyferré imported from France.

When it comes to matzo, Gelerman doesn’t stop at traditional square brands. Increasingly, more people are opting for handmade, round matzo, which is prepared and baked in under 18 minutes to ensure no moisture interferes with the process that would allow the dough to rise. Each batch is cooked individually and watched, in a custom of guarding it called shmura that is a must for some Orthodox Jews. At the Butcherie, customers have their choice of handmade shmura matzo from Israel, Ukraine, Montreal, or Brooklyn.

“This is the mecca,” said Jane Rosenblatt, who grew up in Mattapan and lives in Saugus, as she surveyed the columns of matzo on a recent day at the Butcherie. “Anything and everything you want you could find here.”

“I think there’s more awareness and more options than years ago,” added Elyssa Towers, who traveled from Lexington to the Butcherie to fill her basket with chicken, matzo, gefilte fish, and assorted candies. Nowadays, she said the biggest difference in the holiday is the proliferation of prepared products.

While Stop & Shop rolls out large Passover selections in Swampscott, Brookline, Watertown, Natick, Framingham, and Stoughton, Larry Levine’s store in Peabody is the only year-round kosher shop in Massachusetts north of Boston. A third-generation butcher, Levine said secular Jews go overboard to keep kosher this time of year.

“The market is there. On Passover everybody tries to keep kosher,” he said.

Even Levine, though, is sometimes surprised at what is now certified by rabbis as kosher for Passover. “Years ago, you had your basics. You went to school with your gefilte fish, matzo, and salami,” he said. “Now we make chicken nuggets for Passover. Years ago, we didn’t know what a chicken nugget was, never mind on Passover.”

In Canton, Josh Ruboy, the manager of the Butcherie II, acknowledged that competition from supermarkets makes the field more competitive for the consumer and difficult for the specialty store. This year, he’s making more prepared foods for the holiday, such as lamb and turkey shawarma, braided short ribs, glazed corned beef, boneless veal roasts, and stuffed cabbage rolls.

“Oh yeah, and I just brought in 100 cases of ice cream,” said Ruboy, who raced up and down the aisles answering questions from customers while his wife, Lisa, the store owner, worked the cash register.

Andrea Woolner of Sharon was enthused about finding gluten-free noodles at the Canton kosher shop. Woolner shops at the Butcherie II a few times a week and said she had already purchased gluten-free matzo a few days earlier.

At the checkout counter, she applauded the variety of kosher for Passover products that she wished were available when she was a child. “Much of what used to be on the market was tasteless,” she said.


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