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Traditional Kosher Products Appear Poised to Compete With 'In' Foods : Trends: The strictly prepared food is becoming increasingly popular with a larger number of non-Jewish consumers.

December 21, 1989|IRA RIFKIN | Rifkin is a free-lance writer in Los Angeles

Can it be that kosher food has become trendy? Can traditional Jewish cooking that depended for oh-so-many years on brisket, blintzes and borscht really compete with the likes of such bona fide "in" cuisines as Southwest and Thai?

Sounds improbable, but the word from those who deal in kosher foods is a qualified yes.

Product variety and availability have exploded, kosher mavens note, gourmet kosher restaurants now serve top quality Continental, Oriental, Mexican, Indian and other non-traditional dishes, and upscale hotels are investing big money to compete for kosher catering dollars.

Even kosher wines, long-disdained by connoisseurs as far too sweet and syrupy, now compete with premium non-kosher wines. The 1986 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon produced by Gan Eden, a small, kosher winery located in Sebastopol, Calif., has just taken top honors in its category in Wine&Spirits magazine's 1989 American Wine Champion competition. The award is one of three-dozen medals won by the label over the past five years.

"The last decade has seen kosher go from relative obscurity tucked away in a corner of the market to the level where often more than one-third the products on a market's shelves are kosher," said Menachem Lubinsky, president of New York-based Lubicom, a leading kosher marketing firm.

However, only a small fraction of that amount--about $1.5 billion--is actually spent by Jews who follow their faith's complex set of dietary laws known in Hebrew as kashrut, Lubinsky pointed out. "That's an indication of how much the kosher market extends beyond observant Jews," he said.

"It's like sushi," added Marvin Pearlman, president of A1 International Foods in Los Angeles, the largest kosher food distributor west of New York. "Non-Jews eat kosher food because they think it's exotic."

The Northeast, with its large Jewish population, is the nation's prime kosher market. Southern California, however, has quietly slipped into second place in the kosher sweepstakes.

There are now nearly 40 kosher restaurants in Los Angeles scattered over the area from downtown to the west San Fernando Valley (these should not be confused with kosher-style restaurants, such as Canter's on Fairfax Avenue).

One of Los Angeles' better-known kosher restaurants is the Milky Way run by Steven Spielberg's mother, Leah Adler, on West Pico Boulevard. Just down the street are China on Rye and Pepe Tam, which offer kosher Chinese and Mexican dishes.

Meanwhile, such upscale hotels as the Beverly Hilton and Century Plaza are finding that a larger proportion of their catering is kosher.

"Thirty-percent of our total catering business is kosher, and it goes up every year," said Carlo Karim, food and beverage director at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, which recently spent $600,000 to install a kosher kitchen complete with its own dish-washing area, refrigerators, ovens and food preparation tables.

At the Century Plaza Hotel, catering director Jim Ries said that as much as 50% of the hotel's non-convention catering is now kosher and that "it has increased dramatically in recent years."

"Eating kosher has become a fad in Los Angeles," said Rabbi Aryeh Weiner, who keeps tab of the West Coast kosher scene for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, the largest of the many rabbinical watchdog groups that certify products as being kosher. "Because of that, kosher consumerism in Los Angeles is far ahead of anywhere else in the United States."

Perhaps the strongest indication yet that Southern California is now big time in the kosher world came last weekend with the staging of the International Jewish Festival at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Previous festivals have been held the past few years in New York and Miami, but this was the first time the kosher foods expo was staged on the West Coast.

The festival, which ended Monday and drew more than 20,000 people, according to event organizers, featured more than 40 kosher food producers. Included were such food industry giants as Borden's, Post Cereals and H.J. Heinz, which became the first national brand to cater to kosher consumers when it introduced canned, kosher vegetarian baked beans in the mid-1930s.

Other booths touted kosher restaurants and caterers and one firm that builds kosher kitchens complete with three sinks to insure that meat, dairy and neutral, or parve, foods do not unintentionally come in contact with each other in violation of kosher guidelines.

Kosher regulations, which are based on biblical passages and later rabbinical interpretations, are extremely complex. A quick rule-of-thumb to remember is no pork, shellfish or the mixing of dairy and meat no matter how minute the quantity. Also, to be kosher, fish must have scales and wine or grape juice must come from Jewish sources.

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