Passover 2008: A Blend of the Old and the New

March 28, 2008

When Jews sit down to the seder on April 19 and 20, chances are that the set table will have a very traditional look. There will be the seder plates, the cups for the wine, the elegant flatware and dishes and so forth. But when the meal begins, the foods that are served may be reflecting some of the new products that have been introduced in recent years. For example, even the Kedem grape juice could be a dietetic version that has far less sugar than the traditional grape juice. The matzos may be spelt or whole wheat, the gefilte fish without sugar, and, of course, Diet Coke.

An estimated 300 new products will be on grocery shelves this Passover with the emphasis being on products that are either healthier or gourmet, including foods made without spelt, low cholesterol, low fat and low or no sugar items. There will be some newcomers like Oxygen Imports, Ora’s Organics, Pereg, Sweet Dreams, Castle Spirits, and Reisman’s (a well known brand that is a first-timer this Passover). One good reason for the change in Passover brands and products is the changing demographics of the Jewish community, particularly among the Orthodox where the majority are now younger consumers with a rich appetite for new and different items.

Even before the Passover season went into high gear, the kosher industry had received some extraordinary recognition. According to the Mintel Research Group, one of the largest research firms on consumer goods, of 5,000 new products to hit grocery shelves in the past 12 months, 4,200 of them had kosher certification. A good number of them will be on shelves for Passover, and a significant number are certified by the Orthodox Union featuring the distinctive OU symbol.

Passover ’08 will also be noteworthy for some of the brands that no longer dominate the shelves and which used to be so much a part of grandma’s shopping basket. There have been huge changes in the industry, including mergers and acquisitions and a growing penetration by foreign manufacturers, mainly from Israel. There will be an unprecedented number of matzah brands from Israel as well as other products.

Perhaps the biggest change in recent years has been the sheer number of new kosher for Passover wines, including a large number from Israel. The OU certified Royal Wines/Kedem recommended ten new wines and they literally cross the globe, including Portugal, California, France, New Zealand, and of course, Israel. A winner at the Kosherfest 2007 New Products Competition for ‘Best New Wine, Beer or Spirit’ was Rimon Pomegranate Dessert Wine 2005. Other wineries like Tabor and Golan Heights also came out with new kosher for Passover wines.

A visit to a kosher for Passover bakery can be an interesting experience. It is hard to believe that bakery products made with potato starch can look and taste that good. People used to think of Passover as a time when they deprived themselves of some of the foods they eat all year, but with every Passover, it seems to be a distant memory. This year’s new product list includes innovation in almost every category. Even desserts can be a treat at the seder with such products as individual apple cakes, sliced cantaloupe puree, rocky road chocolate ice cream with marshmallow and brownie bits on a moist double fudge brownie, Boston cream pie and lollypop ice cream sticks, all from Elegant Desserts.

Perhaps the most noticeable trend is just how many products target the health consciousness of consumers. Many of the new products tout the fact that they are made with natural ingredients, others with low or no sugar, appealing to a significant population of people for whom Passover was once a nightmare. Several new cookbooks specifically include low calorie items to ward off the automatic weight gain over the eight-day holiday.

If eating healthy is one development for celebrants of Passover, the availability of new gourmet items is another. Grandma probably would be awestruck by the upscale chocolates and cheeses, preserves, coffees and teas, sauces, dressing, dips, and spreads. She would be wondering why anyone would need an organic honey and halva spread, spicy Mexican marinade, or imitation noodles and bread crumbs.

The Israel factor is increasingly a major part of the Passover set. On some supermarket shelves, you are likely to see more brands of Israeli matzah than the American-made version. The Israelis too are adding light whole wheat bran matzah to their usual mix of plain and flavored matzah and otherwise focusing on health. The same will be true in the refrigerated case where low fat cheeses from Israel will be on display. This is part of the overall recent success of Israeli products in the U.S., which have grown by 35 percent in the last year to some $144 million.

Children will not be deprived either as there will be more snack items than ever before, including candy, potato chips, chocolates and more. This is a far cry from the days when mothers packed hard-boiled eggs and boiled potatoes as snack for the obligatory Chol Hamoed (intermediate days of Passover) trip.

With an estimated 20,000 items, consumers will have an unprecedented choice of products to enhance their holiday. It represents nearly 40 percent of year-round sales of kosher foods.

In some major cities, supermarkets designate special sections as their “Passover store” as do the independents, who occasionally rent an additional store for the holiday.

While Passover is an eight-day holiday outside of Israel (where it is seven days), preparation for the holiday dominates a good part of the year for the industry. Distributors and retailers plan their Passover program as early as July and by the annual Kosherfest (trade show for the kosher food industry) which takes place in November, most of the plan has already been written. Typically, the show is where many of the new products are showcased and picked up by buyers. Some of the growth in sales of kosher for Passover has come from the new products, which is why manufacturers invest so much into the development of new items.

It is impossible to write the story of Passover without acknowledging the role of the kashrut agencies, most notably the Orthodox Union, which begins its planning for Passover each year almost the day after the holiday ends. The OU supervises the majority of Passover products on supermarket shelves. Kashrut administrators and mashgichim crisscross the globe to prepare for the coming Passover as early as nine months before. They supervise special runs at major manufacturing facilities which may involve shutting down an otherwise busy plant for kosherizing for Passover.

That’s the good news. The not so good news is that kosher consumers will face steep price increases for Passover 2008. Distributors say that prices for a large number of products will increase by 15-25 percent. Manufacturers say they are just passing along sharp increases in products that were already on the rise even before Passover. Prices for dairy products, for example, have soared as have foods produced with oil, shortening and wheat.

As many as 30,000 people will spend Passover at a luxury hotel in a large number of resorts and big cities in the United States, Europe and Israel. They will be supplied by many of the kosher manufacturers who produce special lines for foodservice, but in many cases they will consume the very same products that will be available on supermarket shelves. Foodservice has become a huge category for the kosher food industry Passover and year-round.

While the snow may still be falling, for the kosher food industry, Spring sprung a while ago!