Kosher: Category at A Crossroads
by Joshua lipsky, senior editor
How to define kosher. . is it a niche? A category? A diet? Only one thing is for sure, kosher is booming!
Most traditional retailers have one aisle in their market set aside for “world products”. Here is where shoppers find many of their core ethnic products. There is space for Asian foods, space for Hispanic/Latin foods, spaces for Italian and Tex-Mex foods, and generally a space for kosher foods. However, there is something inherently different about the kosher section of this aisle.  
A shopper may choose items from the Asian section of the aisle because they are making an Asian meal, same for the Hispanic or Italian section. But aside from Passover, the largest Jewish holiday involving food, you won’t find someone shopping in the kosher section looking to make a “Kosher meal.” While Hispanic and Asian are categories or ethnicities, kosher is a diet. All over the world, from Syria to Poland to Turkey to France to the United States, the kosher dietary laws are the same; however, the ethnicities and eating preferences are different.
“A kosher diet is rooted in religious laws not any kind of cooking style,” explains D. Nussbaum, head of the history department at Chicago’s Telshe Yehsiva school. “There is the traditional kosher/Jewish style of cooking, which is where the bulk of your Manishevitz products come into play, but that brand does not own the kosher category. As more people turn to a kosher diet we are seeing many new and diverse products being introduced.”
And the number of kosher diets is growing — quickly. Rosemont, IL-based NPD Group, does a study on kosher dieters. “When doing our kosher study, we ask only one thing, ‘Do you keep kosher in your house’?” says Harry Balzer, vice president for NPD Group. “In 2004, nine percent of those asked said that they do keep kosher. Five years ago, it was six percent. This is a category growing at an extremely rapid rate.”
Kosher Today, a magazine for the kosher food industry, reports that the kosher food category is growing by 12 to 15 percent a year after nearly a decade. As well, almost 20,000 supermarkets in the United States sell kosher products as part of a display, shelf or store within a store.
Traditional retailers are responding to these growing numbers. Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion says that they carry their kosher products right next to their Asian and Italian foods; however, while the shelf-space allotted for Asian and Italian foods are consistent across the bulk of Food Lion stores, the kosher section fluctuates in size depending on the size of the kosher-keeping community.
“There are people who shop the entire store and also purchase items from the Asian food’s section because they want to do an ‘Asian Night’ one night during the week,” says Jeff Lowrance, communications director for Food Lion. “But kosher shoppers are long-term dieters who will only shop for kosher products in the kosher section. These are loyal, dedicated shoppers and in communities where there are more kosher consumers, we must stock product to meet demand.”
Answering the demand
A problem with ethnic retailing is that traditional retailers compete with specialty markets for the loyal ethnic shopper. A section of an aisle works for people shopping for only a couple of items, but how can retailers attract the loyal kosher dieter? The answer is by embracing the category fully.
Evanston, IL has an enormous Jewish population, many of whom keep kosher. Recently, a new Jewel has opened in Evanston centered on kosher foods. There is a kosher deli with a huge selection of full- and self-service kosher items, there is an enormous Israel import section, and even the Jewel’s deli restaurant is kosher. The Jewel has turned the tables on traditional retailing, so instead of being squeezed by local kosher-only retailers, the Jewel is putting the squeeze on by not only offering the full spectrum of products but utilizing its volume to become price competitive.
In addition to being price competitive, kosher food processors are improving the taste of their products — and consumers are responding. In a 2003 study, the Mintel Organization, a consumer-goods research group, found that 28 percent of all Americans knowingly buy a kosher product, and 35 percent of these shoppers say they bought kosher on the basis of flavor.
Retailers are also leveraging their reputations and value by introducing kosher private label-products. Brooklyn, NY-based Victoria Packing Corp. has been producing private label products since 1929. A core business for Victoria has been its kosher private label business. Victoria, which is approved by the Kof-K, the second largest Koshering agency in the world supplies many East Coast retailers with private-label kosher products.
As kosher improves its taste and reputation, it is also improving its convenience. Kosher convenience foods are increasing. “It is refreshing to stop at a roadside convenience store and find an assortment of snack foods that are all reliably Kosher approved,” says Rabbi Tzvi Rosen, editor of Kashrus Kurrents.
Kosher is booming. Fueled by a demanding and increasing consumer base, introductions of convenience items and private-label products, the kosher category is moving away from its fringe ethnic-niche roots and has become a retail staple.
Understanding kosher
Processors and retailers alike find themselves asking, “why keep kosher?” The question is valid, as many reputed Jewish scholars believe that many kosher laws are nothing more than ancient health regulations that have become obsolete with modern methods of food storage and preparation. However, health is not the sole reason for kosher dietary laws as many of kosher laws have little or no connection with health. Why is eating goat or cow considered kosher, while eating pig or rabbit not kosher?
In Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donn’s To Be a Jew he says that kosher dietary laws serve as a call to holiness. Donin relays that the ability to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, and pure and defiled is very important in Judaism and imposing rules on what you can and cannot eat ingrains that kid of self control, requiring those keeping kosher to learn to control even the most basic, primal instincts.
Donin adds that kosher laws also elevate the simple act of eating into a religious ritual. In rabbinic literature, the Jewish dinner table is often compare to the Temple altar; therefore, a Jew who observes kosher law cannot eat a meal without being reminded of the fact that they are Jews.