NEW YORK, Feb. 8 (JTA) — Five hunks of Hebrew National salami lie side by side in a glass display case at Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen in midtown Manhattan. Cordoned off in a corner of the case, they don’t look like much — especially when compared with the crispy corn dogs and enormous latkes. But the guy managing the restaurant’s takeout counter is relieved that he has any salami to sell at all. For the last several months, a shortage of Hebrew National products has hit kosher restaurants and food distributors across North America, forcing some, including Ben’s, to fill the gap with other meat products. “We had to replace it with inferior product,” the man says, asking that his name not be used. And the inferior product led to inferior sales, he says: As the shortage dragged on, Ben’s, which operates several restaurants in New York and Florida, lost money from customers unwilling to pay for anything but the venerable brand that “answers to a higher authority,” as the famous advertisement put it. The shortage comes at what should be a time of celebration, as Hebrew National, which was founded on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, celebrates its 100th birthday. “At this point, we’ve been working very hard to increase production,” says Julie DeYoung, a spokeswoman for ConAgra Foods Inc., the Omaha-based food giant that bought Hebrew National in 1993. “We are for the most part filling orders on the most popular products. For the minor products, there will continue to be some shortages for a period of time.” The most popular products, DeYoung says, are the outfit’s extensive line of hot dogs — Hebrew National’s Web site lists half a dozen different varieties of beef franks alone. Products still experiencing shortages, she says, include such packaged lunch meats as turkey and salami. Hebrew National has seen “several-digit growth” in demand for its hot dogs in recent years, DeYoung says. “Demand is outstripping the current supply,” she says. “We have built a new manufacturing facility” in Quincy, Mich., “to allow us to increase production to be able to fully meet demand.” Getting the new factory up to speed — what DeYoung calls a “ramp-up process that takes time” — has contributed to the shortage. Demand is strongest on the East Coast, she says, though demand on the West Coast is picking up. And as super retailers like Costco begin stocking Hebrew National products, DeYoung says, the company is becoming, as its name suggests, national. Overall, kosher products have experienced growing popularity in recent years, fueled in part by the belief that kosher products are healthier. Rabbi Menachem Genack, the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division, says the increase may not have to do with an increasing number of people keeping kosher. “In terms of the general Jewish population, there is a precipitous demographic decline of our population, so in that respect there are less kosher consumers,” Genack says. But Muslims who maintain halal diets, for example, can eat kosher meat. And people who are lactose intolerant often look for the pareve label, indicating that no dairy was used in making a particular product. “The segment of the market that thinks kosher is an added value — that may be growing and that may be reflected in Hebrew National’s numbers,” Genack added. But for the man behind the counter at Ben’s, the reasons for Hebrew National’s success are much simpler. “You can’t beat their hot dogs,” he says.
Shortage of salami hits eateries