With observance rising at Passover, so does kosher food business



BERKELEY, Calif. (JTA) — Inside Saul’s Deli, the lone beacon of Jewish cuisine in this northern California town, a 51-year-old customer was enjoying a corned beef on rye and reminiscing about Passover. The woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, did not grow up keeping kosher, and doesn’t keep kosher today. But every spring she stocks up on kosher-for-Passover matzah, gefilte fish and wine to serve at her seder table.

“Not the sweet fortified wine,” she hastens to add.

This is, after all, the San Francisco Bay area.

Why does she do it?

“I have no clue,” she shrugs, pointing out that the kosher products she buys “immediately become treif,” or non-kosher, when she serves them on her non-kosher dishes.

It makes no logical sense, but it feels right. She even tries to buy Israeli Passover items when possible.

“To support them,” she says.

This woman does what a lot of other American Jews do. They may not keep kosher during the rest of the year, but they wouldn’t think of putting bread or a pork roast on the Passover table. Some of these ordinarily non-observant Jews will just buy a box or two of Passover matzah, and maybe a bottle of holiday wine. Others will buy enough for the eight days, maybe throwing in some kosher-for-Passover macaroons or a jar of gefilte fish.

For some it’s a mark of Jewish identity. For others it’s nostalgia or respect for tradition, a nod to parents or grandparents. For still others, it just feels right.

Passover is the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday, marked by 77 percent of American Jews, according to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey. It’s easy to observe even if you don’t know all the proper rituals, says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which sponsors “Passover in the Aisles,” an outreach campaign held every spring in the kosher section of supermarkets.

“Passover is home based and there’s a lot of flexibility, it allows people to experiment without fear,” he says. “And it’s got those two basic ingredients, food and family.”

Even some Jews who partially observe kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws, during the year ratchet up their observance a notch at Passover.

Sharon Silver of Glenview, Ill., keeps a kosher home year-round but will eat non-kosher food in restaurants. During Passover, however, she observes Jewish dietary laws both inside and outside her home.

“I love the mindfulness of it, the sense of self-control and discipline,” she says.

Passover, not surprisingly, is the biggest moneymaker of the year for kosher food manufacturers. Kosher marketing consultant Menachem Lubinsky reports that Jewish ethnic food companies do 40 percent of their annual sales around Passover.

Two companies that especially enjoy the financial benefits of the holiday are PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, both of which replace the high-fructose corn syrup they usually use to sweeten their soft drinks with cane sugar at Passover — corn is kitniyot, a grain forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews during the holiday.

Whether customers really prefer the taste of real sugar or just like the idea of a product that is available only a few weeks a year, every spring they stock up on it.

“It’s the one time of the year that Coke and Pepsi realize a big bump in sales,” Lubinsky says.

Yakov Yarmove, a kosher buyer for 1,500 stores in the Supervalu chain, tells of coming across a man in one of his stores who had 40 bottles of kosher-for-Passover Coke in his shopping cart.

“I said, ‘you’re having a big seder!’ ” Yarmove recalls. “He said, ‘I’m not Jewish, I just love this stuff.’ ”

Kosher food manufacturers roll out as many new products as they can for Passover to capture that brief surge of shoppers. This year there are at least 400 new kosher-for-Passover products on the shelves, Lubinsky says, from noodles, sauces, dips and salads to gourmet desserts and ready-to-eat meals.

Among the hottest new items, he says, is a kosher-for-Passover “white bread” by Laromme, a bakery in Monsey, N.Y.

Supermarkets gear up early for the Passover rush, putting in their orders the previous summer or early fall. Since this year’s orders were placed before the economic crunch hit, some retailers are worried that they won’t see their usual bump in sales. Others are unconcerned, saying they have a captive audience at Passover — Jews who don’t keep kosher the rest of the year but make a beeline for the Passover display right before the holiday.

“It’s business as usual this year,” says Steve Ravitz, president of Supermarkets of Cherry Hill, who oversees five ShopRite stores in southern New Jersey. “I’ve been doing Passover for 42 years and I can tell you, it’s enormous.”

And it’s not just Jews buying and consuming Passover products. Ravitz notes many of his non-Jewish customers with wheat allergies stock up on gluten-free Passover products, especially pasta and cookies. Yarmove notes that macaroons are particularly popular with non-Jewish consumers, who would buy them whether they were kosher for Passover or not.

Non-Jews attending their friends’ Passover seders means even more sales of matzah, chicken, gefilte fish, horseradish, macaroons and wine. And increasing numbers of churches hold seders, often presenting them as re-enactments of the meal they assume was Jesus’s Last Supper.

Sometimes they are joint seders held by a synagogue and a church, like the one run last year by the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pa., with Bethesda Presbyterian Church. The meal was underwritten by a local supermarket that provided Passover ritual items and enough kosher chicken, tzimmes and other prepared foods for 170 guests.

“The store felt it was good for Pittsburgh to bring these different people together,” says Tree of Life Rabbi Stephen Listfield.

Other churches hold seders on their own. The First Parish Church of Groton, Mass., in April will be running its sixth. The Rev. Elea Kemler says many of the 100 guests who show up are Jewish, either members of her church or their extended families and friends. The church buys Passover matzah in bulk, and asks participants to bring prepared foods using kosher-for-Passover ingredients.

“We don’t talk about Jesus,” she says. “It really is a seder. So we want the food to be kosher.”

Still, mistakes happen.

“Every year, I swear to you, someone brings a basket of rolls,” Kemler says. “We just put it away quietly.”

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