Rabbis travel half way around the globe for special production runs that may last no more than a day, although preparation may take as much as a week. Major national brands remove ingredients from their products, often replacing them with such popular Passover ingredients as apple cider and potato starch, all in deference to the millions of Jews who refrain from eating any chametz ingredients during the holiday. Alcoa focuses on Jews preparing for the eight-day holiday of Passover with its heavy-duty foil and other products. On the retail side, preparations are just as intense. An estimated 18,000 of the nation’s 32,000 supermarkets carry matzah, a basic staple for the holiday. Groceries all over the country empty aisles to make room for the matzah, grape juice, macaroons, sweets and as many as 20,000 other items, depending on the Jewish community served. The Passover “set” — the new line — is prepared in early fall, with the finishing touches often including some of the 500 new products that are displayed annually at Kosherfest, the International Kosher Food Trade Show held at New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
What is it about Passover that makes it the most intense period for the kosher industry? Why has it become such a lucrative part of the kosher business? Jewish people of all backgrounds have celebrated the holiday for centuries to mark the ancient exodus from Egyptian bondage. It more than any holiday symbolizes the Jewish quest for freedom throughout the ages. In the United States as well, despite soaring intermarriage and assimilation, it remains the most celebrated holiday on the Jewish calendar, according to the most recent 2001-2002 National Jewish Population Study. Nearly 90 percent participate in at least one Passover Seder, the festive meal in which where the story of Exodus is told and when certain foods like matzah, bitter herbs and the four cups of wine are part of the ritual. People who have a virtual disconnect with kosher all year round scan Passover aisles for foods that were on Grandma’s and Grandpa’s table. They often grab products that have Jewish sounding names as an assurance of the link with tradition. A growing number involve non-Jewish friends and business associates in a Seder, which many say is a great way to introduce their Christian friends to the beauty of Judaism and its values of freedom. These added guests also add to the market basket and to overall sales of Passover foods. So intense has Passover become that it is become a virtual year-round activity for the Orthodox Union, which dispatches rabbis months in advance to supervise the special production runs. Its special Passover Guide is used as the bible by tens of thousands of consumers. A telephone hotline keeps OU personnel occupied months in advance of the holiday. Special community-wide seminars are offered. OU spokesmen appear as guests on Jewish radio programs and in recent years there has been heavy visitor traffic on the OU web site, www.ou.org, checking out the kosher status of products.
For the kosher food industry, there simply is no season like Passover. Data consistently shows that Passover represents 40 percent of annual sales of the $8.5 billion kosher market in the US. The sheer number of Passover products, distinguished by the OU-P symbol, continues to grow. Some companies with no objectionable ingredients opt to keep their plants Passover-worthy all year round so that they can keep the OU-P on the label. Retailers open special stores for Passover and open special aisles on average six weeks before the holiday. Advertising budgets soar, particularly by supermarkets with their heavy use of FSI’s. Making a product kosher for Passover can add significantly to the bottom line of any company. Some of the kosher companies like Kedem, Rokeach, and others produce a broad line of foods just for Passover. Most beverage companies covet the Passover market, as was so dramatically illustrated by Coca-Cola, which began in the early ‘90’s with a small OU-P production and today has expanded the program to almost all of its bottlers. Alcoa last year issued a special press release about some of its new products. Dannon makes a special run of some of its leading brands. A Passover presence can help a company in its overall positioning with kosher consumers. To be sure there are some “headaches” in making a product kosher. Ingredients will have to be changed, plants closed down for intense cleaning, non-Passover ingredients kept out of sight of Passover runs, constant supervision by a rabbi or rabbis. But as the growing number of companies producing Passover items demonstrates, it is well worth the trouble. The contemporary kosher consumer has also changed over the years. Jews have traditionally been more cautious of what they buy for Passover than year-round. The traditional greeting of “A kosher Pesach” is still true today, but nowadays it probably includes the thousands of products that are under Kosher supervision for Passover. It is a far cry from the days of yesteryear when all Passover foods were prepared at home, from the chicken to the applesauce. Today, a younger consumer has come to rely on the strict standards of organizations like the OU, and embraces every new quality product that is made available for Passover. In recent years the limits have been stretched, including such foods as breadcrumbs, potato chips and even pizza. In short, the consumer is saying, “If it can be made kosher for Passover, I want it.” This broader acceptance of OU-P foods presents an opportunity to manufacturers who can easily replace an ingredient or two or do not have any inherent chametz in their products. There may be opportunities for more beverage companies, producers of coffees and teas, snack foods, and confectionery to name but a few. Once the game plan is designed to make products kosher, there is always the question of distribution. Some companies have their established channels and their distributors are more than glad to go for the marginal business. Others will have to persuade some of the well-known distributors to add their products to their Passover lists. In recent years, product enhancers have done very well. These include salad dressings, steak and barbecue sauces, jams and spreads, as well as dairy items like cheeses. Passover is also vacation time, which is why snack foods do so well.
Thousands of families vacation during Chol HaMoed (the interim period between the first two days and the last two days of the holiday). Even microwaveable products are no longer off limits on Passover. Convenience meals and a growing array of frozen foods for Passover have also done extremely well in the last two years. The lifestyle changes of the contemporary kosher generation have had a dramatic effect on wines that have moved from the traditional sweet sacramental variety to an array that is nothing short of remarkable. It is commonplace today to include wines on a Seder table from around the world, whether Bordeaux from France, a Chardonnay from Italy and so forth. Many people consume a different wine for every one of the four cups of wine and then some. The OU’s wine collection is extensive, led by the Royal Wine Company, which includes its well-known Kedem label.
In recent years, American Jews have also been buying many more Israeli products, including matzah and wine. This is part of the raised consciousness of Jews about helping Israel’s economy, particularly in the past four years during the Palestinian uprising. Finally, there is food service. Some 50,000 hotel rooms are filled throughout the world with Passover vacationers for a business that is estimated at $1 billion. This is in addition to the conventional foodservice institutions such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools etc. Selling bulk for Passover is big business, particularly if the product can help a chef make a more interesting meal, whether on a cruise ship or at a resort. It is not too early to begin thinking about Passover ’06. The OU is!