For A Traveling RFR, It’s A Long And Winding Road To The Nearest Plant

As a traveling RFR (rabbinic field representative) for more years than I care to admit to, one quickly learns that regardless of how carefully we plan our days, flexibility is the key to success.

It should have been an ordinary Wednesday morning. When I awaken to go to synagogue for the morning services, I notice there is dense fog in the neighborhood. Fog in the spring in Chicago is not unheard of, but not common. It was eerie not being able to see the end of the block. About an hour later, back at home, the Blackberry goes on as the work day begins. The plan today is to cover a couple of factories near O’Hare Airport and then hop a quick flight over to Fort Wayne, Indiana where my regular monthly route of about 10 facilities will begin. Perhaps I’ll be able to inspect Ellison Bakery and then get to Nestle’s Dreyer’s ice cream facility before the end of the day – crossing into the Eastern time zone does not help with productivity!

Back home, as reveille is sounded for the kids who have to get out the door to school, the Blackberry chirps away as the overnight email arrives. Most days I ignore it until I get out the door – I’m Midwest based, and it’s rare that at 7:00 in the morning anything but the latest announcement that I won the lottery will arrive this early. Today I steal a glance to see what has come in.

The second email on the list is ominous – three of the most dreaded words a frequent traveler can see: Flight Update Message. This is usually not good news. Sure enough, the mid-day flight has already been cancelled. Seems the fog is persisting all across the Midwest! A quick call to the airline confirms flight cancelled – but there is a flight on another airline about two hours from now. Ticket switched, pack quickly, inform my wife I’m not going to be able to drive carpool this morning after all and out the door.

O’Hare Airport, 9:00 a.m. Not too busy today, check-in is efficient. The “Board of Doom” shows flight is on-time. A quick visit with my friends at the TSA and I’m at the gate. Since there aren’t any seats by outlets, I opt for the next gate over which is empty. I see our aircraft arrive, and when I think it’s about time to board head back over to find… the departure monitor is blank. After a moment of panic (did the flight leave already?) the Blackberry chips the news again: Cancelled.

Based on the available flight schedule, the weather, and the number of cancellations already announced it has become rather obvious that I am not going to Fort Wayne today, at least by air. It’s time to regroup and weigh the options. One — fly tomorrow morning; instantly dismissed. I can’t make my route in one day, and staying Thursday night and traveling back on Friday is not appealing. Two – drive to Fort Wayne and run the route. Is there anything critical that has to be done this week? Running down the list mentally, it doesn’t seem so. I’d like to be at Pretzel’s Inc. for their kosher cheese run, but it’s not essential. The verdict: driving to Fort Wayne is not a good option. It will take four hours to get to the area, and with the time change it will be too late to see anyone today.

Now that Eastern Indiana is not going to happen, what’s the next option? Central Indiana still needs to be covered this month, and I should be able to cover the route in the day and a half that I now have left so — it’s back to the parking lot. The priority now becomes the traffic situation. Downtown Chicago lies directly between me and my destination, and that can be ugly. Finally though, travel luck has changed. The radio reports there is no delay through town. En route, cancel tonight’s hotel plans and rebook for a different destination, then let the family know about the latest change in plans.

I’m very fortunate and grateful that the OU has issued me a tablet PC computer. I am sent all of my assigned schedules regularly and can update them anytime online. This has been one of the greatest tools of my kashrut supervision career, and today is a perfect example of why. In the old days, I would have been loaded up with paper copies of the Fort Wayne area route plants – and the change in plans would mean no choice but to stop at home to switch documents; printing everything for a route could easily take an hour. Thanks to technology, no worries!

Crossing into Indiana, the Blackberry chirps away again. An email announces that my friends at Zentis have been presented with a production dilemma and need some assistance. They are on my central Indiana route, and I’m on the way to that area now. I think they were surprised when I walked in the door within 90 minutes of the email going out! The relevant staff and I meet, and I gather some facts on the situation. We work out a proposed plan, check out the rest of the plant and I bid these fine folks farewell. A quick call to the OU Kosher rabbinic coordinator apprises him of the plan, which he will consider and in short order let the company know if this plan is approved or not.

My next stop brings an unexpected surprise. Bay Valley Pickles is running sliced jalapeño peppers today. The front half of the plant is, at least in my opinion, uninhabitable. Fortunately, the warehouse and areas I need to visit are tolerable. I’m fond of some hot peppers here and there, but the concentration of all those peppers being chopped and pickled is something to experience!

After a quick supply run to the local supermarket, I’m ensconced in my hotel room. I have to say that over the years that I have been traveling for supervision, it’s become much easier to eat on the road. Many of the plant people I work with don’t realize that we eat kosher all the time. Twenty years ago, every trip meant take-along from home. Fortunately, there are literally thousands of OU products in stores across the country now and one can put together a pretty good hotel meal without too much effort.

This evening, I’m able to file all my inspection reports for the day and lay out the route for tomorrow’s inspections. The OU Direct website is another terrific tool that has been deployed. From my hotel room, I am able to get all my reports for the day filed – the rabbinic coordinators in New York are apprised of any issues or updates in a timely manner, and I’m saved a lot of time for when I get back home. Kudos again to the OU Direct team back at Headquarters!

A new day dawns, and the weather has not improved. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about flying back this evening, because the situation doesn’t look good. The hotel has pretty good coffee, and some OU General Mills cereal with OU Rice Dream and bananas is the right ticket to start an “OU” day.

Bimbo Bakery starts off the day. One line is down, and they are doing some heavy cleaning. Workers in space suits are making what looks like quite a snow storm. This doesn’t sound like a good match for a black suit, so we’ll detour from our typical route this morning. At Brother’s Baking, there’s some new equipment that has been delivered. We review the installation and usage plans, and I need to assess the kosher status. We discuss how the installation will work, and what the cleaning process will be to prepare the new items for service in their new home. Turns out that the items in question came from another kosher facility, and there will be no kosher issue at all.

The staff at McCormick’s South Bend facility have always been gracious hosts. The QC lab proves ever helpful as we research the warehouse locations for the ingredients I need to find and verify. Computer systems are wonderful – although it does take the challenge out of the great warehouse scavenger hunt of days past. A stop at International Bakers Service starts another search mission. With so many ingredients, how do they manage to know where everything is every time?
Michigan Milk has a facility that needs to be looked at as it embarks on a new kosher product’s production. Here we come across a minor ingredient discrepancy for the new item. I’ll record the pertinent information and send this off to the office to sort out. Turns out in the end that there is no discrepancy at all – the ingredient I recorded is not for the new product, and everything is correct.

My final stop of the route is at Valley Research, now part of the DSM family, to check out enzymes that they process. I’m sad to learn that my previous contact has left the company, but I meet my new contact and we get acquainted as we tour the plant. She is already well up to speed on kosher matters, and I see that this will be a simple transition.

The drive back to Chicago via the Indiana Toll Road is smooth and goes by quickly. On the way, I reflect on the success of the trip even with a rather inauspicious start. A little time lost, but no harm done and overall, a productive trip. I’ll still have to work out Fort Wayne this month, but there will be time to make that up. As Buckingham Fountain and downtown slide by — slowly, it is rush hour after all — it’s time to consider tomorrow’s plans….
Rabbi Simcha Smolensky comes from Denver, Colorado where in younger years he was avidly involved in many outdoor activities, including skiing and mountain climbing. A licensed pilot, Rabbi Smolensky was an active search and rescue pilot for the Civil Air Patrol – Colorado wing in the late 1980’s. He received his B.A. in Psychology and Judaic Studies, University Honors Scholars Program from the University of Denver in 1987. In 1995 Rabbi Smolensly, received rabbinical ordination from Chief Rabbi Shlomo Rivkin, Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis.

Rabbi Smolensky began his kashrut career with the Vaad of Denver in catering events back in 1987. In a brief hiatus from kashrut work, he earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Counseling from St. Louis University and was a counselor in several Midwest schools. Returning to the kashrut world in 1991, he has worked for several agencies in both a field and administrative capacity, including the Chicago Rabbinical Council, Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis and Vaad of Winnipeg. Most recently, he joined OU Kosher’s staff in 2008 as a Chicago-based rabbinic field representative.

OU Kosher Staff