2016-07-27
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 way for 110 years," said Dennis Newnham, president and chief executive officer. "But there are changes occurring in the kosher foods business."

A raft of changes.

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

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

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

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, the first TV ads in the company's history.

"Obviously, what we're trying to do with Manischewitz is make it an ethnic product as opposed to a Jewish product," said Ira Gomberg, senior vice 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? Bagels are ethnic. Gefilte fish is Jewish, which is to say it doesn't have a broad appeal beyond Jewish shoppers. Matzo? Borscht? Maybe those can hit it big.

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

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

In an informal taste test at Martina's Salon in Newark, N.J., three people were offered matzo (unleavened bread), gefilte fish (chopped fish formed 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, the manager. "It's not bad."

The consensus on gefilte fish was that it tasted like tuna. The borscht was the biggest hit. "I would buy it," Polite said. "When people haven'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 an untapped market for foods like borscht. They've gone kosher because the kosher 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 food companies. But the kosher market has grown about 12 percent to 15 percent annually, according to Integrated Marketing.

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

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

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

The Muslim population of the country is growing, from an estimated 4.8 million in 1990 to 6.7 million this year, according to demographers Ilyas Ba-yunus and M. Moin Siddiqui.

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

As a result, Muslims, Seventh-Day Adventists, vegetarians and lactose-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 brought new players into the kosher business. Nabisco took its entire cookie and cracker division kosher in 1997.

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

For kosher consumers, who once had to forgo Oreo cookies in favor of Hydrox, the new products have been a boon, offering more choices and easier shopping. For Manischewitz, the largest kosher-only food company in North America, the changes mean both new markets and new competition.

Half of Manischewitz's sales still come from the months leading up to the eight-day festival of Passover, the spring holiday commemorating the Jews' exodus from Egypt. During those eight days, even many Jews who don't keep kosher the rest of the year celebrate Passover and forgo all regular bread and baked products in favor of unleavened bread, or matzo.

While the kosher industry has changed and Manischewitz's business plan has changed, day-to-day life at Manischewitz hasn't. The Jersey City plant blends the old with the new. For the most part, the old wins.

Much of the plant's equipment dates to 1932. The plant has a synagogue, which has held weddings and bar mitzvahs, and is always open for morning prayers. In a tradition going back to the time of animal sacrifices, some matzo from each batch is burned in a ritual oven.

Many of the workers at the Jersey City plant have been there for 20-plus years. Shop steward Charlie Weinstein, 84, has been with the company for 67 years.

When asked why he decided to work at the plant, he said, "My father forced me. I had to go to work to bring money home. I decided to play ball, but he decided I should work."