For the past 25 years I’ve been coming to San Francisco every year to attend the Winter Fancy Food show. I admit, getting out of the New York winter every January is certainly a bonus, but attending this growing event is much more than a foodie’s dream, it’s a reunion of the important players in the specialty food industry who come together twice a year to eat, meet, greet, and see what’s new.
Over the decades, I’ve watched small companies turn into large ones, family businesses pass onto the next generation, and kosher certification blossom into an incredibly important category. In 1990, when I first started attending the Fancy Food shows there were approximately 50 kosher manufacturers at the show. Today, there are over 300, with hundreds more becoming certified over the next decade.
In the South Hall at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, the OU exhibit, booth number 3517, attracted thousands of visitors: people wanting information about Kosher certification; satisfied OU clients stopping by to say hello; and friendly secular Jews wanting to connect with their heritage. My colleague, Rabbi Reuven Nathanson, the OU’s West Coast Senior Rabbinic Field Representative, spent quality time with a group of food manufacturers from Russia, who were Jewish and had many questions about the kosher process. This engaging interaction led Rabbi Nathanson to offer to put tefillin on one of our new Russian friends. It was a beautiful, heartwarming sight. What a Kiddush Hashem!
Each day at precisely 5:05 PM, a group of Orthodox men from all over the world gathered at the OU booth to daven mincha. Passersby looked on curiously, wondering what the men were doing. I overheard a woman claim to know what was going on.
“I’m Jewish”, she said, “They are ending the Shabbat.”
I smiled and said, “It’s Sunday, Shabbat ended last night.”
“So what are they doing?” She asked.
She looked at me curiously and said: “Why would they be praying on Sunday evening?”
I explained to her, that Orthodox Jewish men pray three times a day: morning, afternoon and evening. Her reaction was priceless, “I’m Jewish, and I never knew that!”
A Muslim food manufacturer stopped by to tell us that he loved Israel and he especially loved the OU. “Because of the OU, we have food to eat here in America,” he said. Without a doubt, the OU was the central address for all things kosher and Jewish at the show.
At the pavilion from Spain, I met an olive oil manufacturer who was intrigued with the process of kosher certification and how important it was to enter the American market. I explained that many specialty food manufacturers find that kosher certification is an important marketing tool. Having the OU kosher symbol on a food label not only lets the consumer know it’s kosher, but it provides reassurance to many foodies, both kosher and non-kosher, that there is another set of eyes inspecting and verifying the food process. He told me that he had met food brokers, supermarket buyers and specialty buyers who all told him that they prefer the OU symbol, as their preferred choice in kosher certification.
His name was Rafael Rodriguez, and he confided in me that he thought he might be Jewish. “My grandmother used to go down to the basement on Friday nights to light candles,” he said. His eyes lit up as I invited him to our booth to meet my colleagues. Kosher seems to bring out the best in everyone, uniting people is a way far and beyond just business.
As I walked the show and met with hundreds of OU clients, I heard over and over again, “We wanted the best kosher certification out there, and that’s why we went with the OU.” The diversity among the kosher certified manufacturers was amazing. Manufacturers from countries all over the world, such as Italy, Peru, Brazil, France, and China to name a few, represented the substantial growth in the kosher industry. Today, to be able to compete and sell your products in the marketplace, the requirement for kosher is critical.
Another Winter Fancy Food show has come to an end. The potential for new clients and products who will be pursuing OU kosher certification in 2016 is great, so be on the lookout for some new, exciting kosher products to hit the shelves this year. And remember, the OU is much more than a kosher certification agency: we are a family, welcoming each and every person seeking guidance, support, answers and community, as well as a place to call home.