The Power of Imagination Brings Inspirational and Healthy Eating To Passover

March 28, 2008

No question – food has always played an essential role in the celebration of Jewish holidays. But when it comes to Passover, it takes an extra dose of vigilance and knowledge to keep all the season’s meticulous kosher laws properly. Those companies involved in the production of kosher-for-Passover products have learned that, in order to keep the eight days of highly restrictive eating interesting, they’ve had to crank up their creativity. Thanks to modern-day food technology, the past decade of Passover offerings have been plentiful – and innovative.

“I’m always excited about new products and we are seeing them now with the smaller players as well,” says Yakov Yarmove, Corporate Category Manager Ethnic Marketing and Specialty Foods, SuperValu; banners include Jewel-Osco, Acme, Albertsons, Shaw’s and Star Markets, Farm Fresh, Shoppers, Shop n’ Save, among others.

One of the leading trends fueling new product ideas is the kosher public’s increasing health consciousness – a force so prevalent that it has prompted companies to investigate more nutritious ingredients for their Passover production. “People are watching what they eat more carefully now,” says Yarmove. “It’s no longer the attitude of: ‘We’ll start the diet the day after the holiday.’” Apparently it’s not only the caloric concern being addressed. “Producers are trying to springboard Passover into specific dietary needs,” says Yarmove. “Gefen has a line of gluten-free pasta for Passover; stores are carrying it throughout the year.” Yarmove reports that anything whole wheat sells big – and that includes whole wheat matzah. Aviv, Osem, Yarden, Yehuda, Yanovsky (under the Savion label), and Manischewitz are among the Passover-prominent companies that have chosen to include whole wheat in their matzah lineup.

This coming season marks Manischewitz’s 120th year as one of the oldest and most popular matzah and kosher products manufacturers. One of the keys to the company’s enduring success is that it keeps a close watch on consumer interest. “We conduct research to determine what new trends are taking place in the marketplace,” says Jeremy Hausman, Associate Brand Manager for Manischewitz. “Whatever we find the public is currently looking for, whether it’s greater convenience or healthier items, we try to tailor products around those concerns.” Just last year, the company introduced whole wheat matzah meal, as well as whole wheat matzah farfel; according to Hausman, it plans to “continue moving in that direction.”

With customer convenience in mind, last year the centenarian company came out with a family-size matzah ball mix. Due to the new product’s success, customers will also find family-size potato pancake mixes on the store shelves this Passover. “Shoppers liked the fact that they could save money by not having to buy several packages of a smaller size mix,” he says. “It also features a re-sealable canister.”

Spelt, a recently “unearthed” healthful grain, has made its way into numerous Passover products. Shibolim, an Israeli manufacturer, has come out with a line of spelt, chocolate coated and carob coated matzos, to satisfy the consumers’ nutritional and sweet tooth quotient over the holiday.

Michael Luftglass, Director of Marketing for Kedem, reports that kosher homemakers are not only moving towards healthier Passover fare, but also gourmet recipes. “We will feature a line of chicken and beef gravy this year,” he says. “We expect them to be extremely popular.” To add a gratifying cap to the meals, Kedem also brings a non-dairy coffee creamer to the festive table.

My Matzah Box – My Canvas

Food manufacturers know well that before a product stands a chance at making it into a customer’s cart, it has to first attract the eye. Aiming to please the consumer’s visual palate this Passover, Osem, an Israeli company, commissioned an Israeli artist to do a complete makeover of their matzah products. “Both consumers and distributors complained that our packages looked similar to each other,” says Izzet Ozdogan, President of Osem, USA. “They said we needed to do something to differentiate them.” Each box displays vivid renderings of the events of the Passover story depicted in the traditional Haggadah, including the Burning Bush, the Parting of the Red Sea, and Moses coming down Mount Sinai with the Tablets, “It’s different from any other matzah package on the market,” says Ozdogan. His imaginative idea could not only make a very noticeable – but profitable “splash.”

While some matzah products make colorful presentations, others come from colorful locations. One hundred and five years ago, the Yanovsky family of Buenos Aires began producing matzah literally from grain to box. The company switched hands three times and for the past six years, the Szpigiel family, has been importing their carefully harvested Passover products, (under the Savion label) to the U.S. “Our purpose is to provide shmura matzah around the world at a reasonable price,” says Steffi Romero-Szpigiel, daughter of the current owners. “We consider our matzah a spiritual product, reminding us of our redemption, our tradition, and our convictions. The matzah used during the Passover seder must be shmura, which means ‘watched,’ in order to assure no fermentation takes place from harvesting to baking.” The company currently exports to countries throughout the world, including Chile, Venezuela, South Africa, Uruguay, Paraguay and Colombia.

On the home front, America’s top food manufacturers such as Breakstone (Kraft), Friendship Dairies, Dannon, Crowley (HP Hood), La Yogurt (in conjunction with Johanna Foods, Inc.), Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and more, continue to supply the country’s kosher consumers with the products they’ve come to rely on throughout the rest of the year, while making sure to meet the OU’s impeccable kosher-for- Passover standards.

Setting up for special kosher-for-Passover runs of products is no simple matter. According to John Lazowsky, Senior Director of Marketing-Cultured Product, Kraft Foods, it entails planning at least six months in advance for ordering materials and arranging schedules, and changing packaging, as well as specific ingredients. The plants are required to remove any material not designated as kosher for Passover to prevent accidental use. In addition, an OU Rabbinic Field Representative conducts daily inspections of the materials and oversees actual productions. “Our aim is to ensure the products are placed on the shelf two to three weeks prior to the holiday,” says Basil Maglaris, Senior Manager of Corporate Affairs, Kraft Foods, “as consumers begin their preparations.”

Evidently, these companies deem it well worth going that extra kosher-for-Passover mile every year. “It’s all about catering to our customer’s needs,” says Paige Pistone, Director of Marketing for Friendship Dairies. “We are a New York-based company with a huge Jewish ethnic following. Friendship offers a wide variety of OU-certified cultured dairy products year round; it’s only natural that we continue [this policy] during Passover.” Michael Neuwirth, Senior Director of Public Relations at Dannon, the world’s top-selling brand of yogurt, agrees. “The Jewish community is an important part of Dannon’s history,” he says. “There is an obvious need for those who observe kosher-for-Passover and want the benefits of yogurt. [Meeting that need] is a continuation of a tradition for us.”

Supermarkets across the U.S. have jumped on the make-it-kosher-for-Passover bandwagon by offering an array of store-brand items for the holiday. Kosher consumers can find an OU-P on the labels of selected beverages from Giant, Pathmark/A&P, Key Food, Stop & Shop, Foodtown, and Shoprite. Pathmark, Foodtown, Stop & Shop, and Price Chopper also offer an array of dairy products.

The Benefits of Cross-Merchandizing

With much to accomplish in a limited amount of time, Passover shoppers tend to make a beeline to the designated Passover section, replete with hundreds of kosher-for-Passover items. Unbeknownst to them, they could be missing out on a coveted addition to their meals. “Most people know that Figi or spring water is generally kosher for Passover,” says Yarmove, “but if you put it in the Passover aisle, you’d be amazed how they would sell.” He illustrates his point with an eye-opening story.

“About four years ago, I caught onto the fact that caffeinated coffees in the bags were OU-P all year round. (Decaffeinated coffee undergoes a process involving the use of grain alcohol, forbidden on Passover.) Now, people are big into coffee, so I told the stores to merchandize these products in their Passover set. One day, one of our category managers and I were visiting a new store and there were gaping holes on the Passover shelf. I said: ‘Let’s bring over the caffeinated Starbucks from the everyday shelf and make sure it has the OU-P.’ A customer noticed us with our arms full of Starbucks bags heading down the Passover aisle and asked what we were doing. We explained that the item was kosher for Passover; he promptly whipped out his cell phone to notify his friends. He bought every bag. The crossover potentials are absolutely phenomenal; you have to bring it over so people will see it.”

Along with the Starbuck’s pick-me-up for the holiday mornings, consumers can now enjoy a hearty “l’chaim” with a premium vodka at night. Thanks to the resourceful efforts of the Atlantic Bottle Company of Ocean, NJ, kosher consumers will be able to make a kosher-for-Passover “toast” on some quality liquor this year. The three-year-old company’s uniquely flavored Zachlawi Fig Arak sold out quickly last year and this season’s offerings include Estate Reserve Arak, Vodka Gimlet, Cranberry Flavored Vodka, and 7-Times Distilled Vodka. “Most spirits are grain based,” says Mordechai Klairey, owner. “We wanted to produce premium spirits that would be kosher for Passover. He substituted with cane spirits, distilling the vodka seven times. “The smell of alcohol is gone and the taste is smooth,” he says. “It is truly a handcrafted vodka.”

Consumers can look forward to eight days of inspiring eating to accompany their spirtual joy throughout the holiday, as manufacturers of Passover products continue the industry’s tradition of tugging its imagination to come up with both delectable and nutritious food products that continue to enhance this festive season.