JERSEY CITY, N.J. (RNS)--The shop steward at the Manischewitz plant here has been on the job 67 years. The ovens were made in 1932. The matzo recipe is more than 5,000 years old.

The strategy, however, is new.

"This is a company that has done its business in a traditional wayfor 110 years," said Dennis Newnham, president and chief executiveofficer. "But there are changes occurring in the kosher foods business."

A raft of changes.

New groups, such as Muslims and vegetarians, now buy more kosherfood than religious Jews. The big guns in the food industry, likeNabisco and Coca-Cola, have entered the kosher market. Since themainstream food industry has gone kosher, kosher companies likeManischewitz are going mainstream.

This means turning Jewish cooking, a cuisine that has inspiredperhaps more humor than reverence, into popular food.

To that end, Manischewitz is revamping its packaging, phasing outits bold orange and green in favor of a beige-and-white color schemewith a big product shot. "We wanted to contemporize and update the imageto appeal to today's consumer, both Jewish and non-Jewish," said MarkPolan, whose Long Island company, Polan & Waski, did the packageredesign.

Manischewitz has doubled the number of products it offers,introducing new items like Everything Matzo, pilafs and a line of soups.It's testing television advertisements for its Tam-Tam crackers, thefirst TV ads in the company's history.

"Obviously, what we're trying to do with Manischewitz is make it anethnic product as opposed to a Jewish product," said Ira Gomberg, seniorvice president of R.A.B. Holdings, an investment company that paid about$125 million for Manischewitz in 1998.

What's the difference between Jewish food and ethnic food? Bagelsare ethnic. Gefilte fish is Jewish, which is to say it doesn't have abroad appeal beyond Jewish shoppers. Matzo? Borscht? Maybe those can hitit big.

It's not such a meshugge (crazy) idea.

Bagels are big time, said Menachem Lubinsky, president of IntegratedMarketing Communications, a kosher food marketing firm. "Can matzo dothe same? There's some people who think it might. Can noodles do thesame? Some people think it can."

In an informal taste test at Martina's Salon in Newark, N.J., threepeople were offered matzo (unleavened bread), gefilte fish (chopped fishformed into balls, then poached) and borscht (beet soup).

The testers were reluctant at first, but all three liked the matzo."It's like the bread we use for communion," said Shirley Polite, themanager. "It's not bad."

The consensus on gefilte fish was that it tasted like tuna. Theborscht was the biggest hit. "I would buy it," Polite said. "When peoplehaven't tried things, they're afraid of them, but this is very good."

Big food companies haven't gone kosher because they think there's anuntapped market for foods like borscht. They've gone kosher because thekosher business is one of the few growth areas in the food industry.

Growth trends rise about 1 percent to 2 percent a year for most foodcompanies. But the kosher market has grown about 12 percent to 15percent annually, according to Integrated Marketing.

Kosher food complies with a set of Jewish dietary laws that, amongother things, forbid eating pork or shellfish and forbid eating milk andmeat at the same meal. But only 10 percent of the 6 million Jews in theUnited States keep kosher. Non-Jews are now the majority of kosher foodbuyers.

Certain aspects of keeping kosher appeal to other groups. Muslimdietary law, called halal, also forbids eating pork. While there arelocal organizations that certify food as halal, there is no nationalhalal organization for the packaged food industry, ensuring thatcrackers aren't made with lard, for instance.

So many religious Muslims shop for kosher food, such as food markedwith the O.U. symbol, showing that it has been made under koshersupervision of rabbis from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations ofAmerica. "I always look for the O.U. symbol," said Shirin Sinnar, aspokeswoman at the American Muslim Council in Washington, D.C.

The Muslim population of the country is growing, from an estimated4.8 million in 1990 to 6.7 million this year, according to demographersIlyas Ba-yunus and M. Moin Siddiqui.

Kosher foods are also on top of other trends. Some kosher food isclearly marked as containing no meat and no dairy products, appealing tovegetarians and people who are lactose-intolerant.

As a result, Muslims, Seventh-Day Adventists, vegetarians andlactose-intolerant people now are 80 percent of the kosher market,according to Integrated Marketing. Jews are 20 percent.

The lure of selling to these growing non-Jewish groups has broughtnew players into the kosher business. Nabisco took its entire cookie andcracker division kosher in 1997.

As mega-food companies have entered the kosher market, the number ofkosher products has grown. In 1988, there were 18,000 kinds of certifiedkosher packaged products, according to Integrated Marketing. By nextyear, the number is expected to reach 60,000.

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