Transitioning Traditional Kosher Brands to the Mainstream

Last year more than 3,200 new foods products were certified kosher, according to a report by the Mintel International Group, a consumer, media and market research firm. Today’s kosher consumer looks for and finds wasabi horseradish sauce, frozen wraps and whole grain noodles on supermarket shelves.

There are two new truths in the kosher food industry. First, kosher isn’t just gefilte fish and borscht anymore. Second, a typical kosher shopper isn’t a bubbie named Sadie Rosenberg. She is Jessica Miller, a 25-year old college graduate, working at her first full-time job and keeping kosher in her first apartment. Or she is Maureen McCullough, a vegetarian whose six-year old son has a dairy allergy. A landmark study, conducted last year by Cannondale Associates, a leading sales, marketing and market research firm, found that 70 percent of “traditional” kosher consumers are 18 to 35 years old. The study also found an emerging and growing segment of consumers buy kosher products, not for religious reasons, but because they feel kosher products are cleaner, purer and higher quality than products without kosher certification.

Manischewitz, poised to celebrate its 120TH anniversary next year, is the oldest and most recognizable kosher brand in the country. Today Manischewitz is working to grow its product line with innovative new products and get them placed alongside their mainstream counterparts, outside the “kosher aisle.” Jeremy J. Fingerman, president and CEO of the R.A.B. Food Group which owns Manischewitz and several other leading kosher brands, was recruited to his position from Campbell Soup Company, outside the kosher food industry. “Our ambition is to be the preferred specialty foods company — preferred by consumers, retailers, distributors and brokers,” says Mr. Fingerman. “We want them to choose us not just because we’re the largest, but because we’re the best.”

Manischewitz sponsored the Cannondale study to understand who kosher consumers are and how they shop and to understand the role of kosher within the broader “specialty foods” arena. “Manischewitz is an iconic brand,” says Mr. Fingerman. “Now,” he adds, “we want to reassert our leadership with kosher consumers and introduce new products that meet the general consumer’s needs and lifestyle.”

The Cannondale results proved true several feelings and suspicions that were growing at Manischewitz and in the industry. Mr. Fingerman notes, “Our research says that kosher certification is perceived like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” he says. “Kosher products are perceived as cleaner, purer, better products.”

Along with the company’s 120TH anniversary, 2008 will also mark the 30TH year of OU certification for Manischewitz.“ The OU symbol is the most widely recognized and trusted kosher certification, ” Mr. Fingerman continues.“ Our brands are enhanced
by having OU certification on each and every package.”

Ron Wise, national director of kosher food marketing for Distribution Plus, Inc. (DPI), one of the largest specialty food and cheese distributors in the country, “works with national customers (retail grocery chains) to bridge the gap” between traditional ethnic kosher and today’s modern kosher market. He educates his sales teams and customers about kosher. “We want to bring non-traditional consumers into the kosher section, particularly vegetarians and lactose intolerant/dairy allergic consumers who are looking for pareve products,” says Wise.“There is also a correlation between the kosher shopper and the natural food shopper,” he continues, again emphasizing a feeling he had that was borne out by the Cannondale study.

The study also looked at several “perceptions” about kosher foods, including the idea that multiple brands of limited products represents “variety” in the marketplace. Not true. Consumers told Cannondale they want a “broader selection of categories — not multiple brands.” Most notable is the category called “need based” kosher consumers, those primarily non-Jewish consumers who buy kosher food because they are lactose intolerant, dairy or gluten allergic or vegetarian. More than 80 percent of these consumers indicated that they would be more likely to buy more kosher products if a wider selection of product categories were available.

Manufacturers, distributors and retailers can no longer assume that “if you build it, they will come.” Cannondale found that in-store signage and displays are the number one source for information about new kosher products. Among Jewish holiday consumers, those that are primarily driven to look for kosher products at holiday time, more than 85 percent find out about new products in the supermarket. The percentages for all other categories of consumers were not far behind.

Manischewitz is working to find a balance between placing their products in the kosher aisle and shelving them with similar, non-kosher products in the rest of the store. “It’s a dilemma,” says Mr. Fingerman. “Customers traditionally look for gefilte fish in the kosher aisle, not the canned fish section. We want to draw more customers to the kosher aisle to familiarize them with gefilte fish.” But he continues, “Pareve noodles should also be in the noodle section where mainstream consumers see them as a choice among mainstream products.”

Manischewitz’s new Whole Wheat Egg Noodles are a perfect example of a product created to meet the needs of mainstream shoppers. Regardless of this week’s diet trend, it is clear that whole grains are healthier and here to stay. Manischewitz’s product is not only better for you, it tastes good and doesn’t have the unpleasant grainy texture found in other whole grain pastas.

Mr. Fingerman cites another example. “When Duncan Hines changed its cake mixes formulation from pareve to dairy, Manischewitz was the first to develop pareve cake mixes for the marketplace. Now we are preparing to release ready-to-spread
frostings that are not just pareve, but high quality and good tasting.” He adds, “We prefer them to be in the mainstream aisle. There is already mainstream behavior for finding those products in the regular aisle. We want kosher and mainstream customers to see the new products where they expect them to be.”

Regardless of where they appear in the store, everyone agrees that the future will bring kosher certification of more mainstream products and innovation by traditional ethnic food brands. Says Ron Wise, “We work with vendors and manufacturers to develop products that will go in all areas of the store.”

Yakov Yarmove is corporate category manager for ethnic and specialty foods at SuperValu, the second largest grocery retailer in the country, which owns Albertstons, Acme and Jewel-Osco, among other chains. He welcomes the growth and change in the kosher food industry.“We are taking kosher shopping to a whole new level. We want to apply everyday supermarket standards to kosher.”

As Manischewitz moves into its 120TH year and beyond, it will apply the lessons learned from the Cannondale study. Mr. Fingerman notes, “The challenge is to be innovative with new products. We will accommodate broad consumer trends, like whole grains, to meet the growing health needs of all consumers. Our products will look fresh and contemporary.” He finishes by saying, “There is a role for kosher foods far beyond Jewish households. Kosher can play a large role with mainstream consumers as well.”

OU Kosher Staff