Kosher war

High prices and low competition raise rumors that the fix is in at Dallas kosher markets

For one Richardson family, the wait for the sun to set on a recent Saturday seemed particularly long.

It was the weekend last month that the Tom Thumb Food & Pharmacy chain was opening its newest store, at the corner of Coit and Campbell roads. The Richardson family members, who asked that their names not be published, were eager to investigate whether the new store had a kosher section like the one across the street at the Albertson's store.

The market opened on a Saturday morning, a day when this Orthodox Jewish clan strictly adheres to their religion's rules governing the Sabbath--a day meant for rest. Until complete darkness, Orthodox Jews do not turn on electricity, ride in cars, or exchange money. Shopping is out of the question.

When the stars finally appeared in the sky, mom, dad, and the kids piled into the car for a visit to the new Tom Thumb. Before they even left the pennant-dotted parking lot, however, the family knew to expect disappointment.

In the doorway at Tom Thumb, the family spotted the kosher butcher from Albertson's. He was beaming. That was when they assumed, the mother of the family says, that Tom Thumb had little in the way of kosher.

Although rumors had swirled for months in the Jewish community that Tom Thumb would open a kosher section--with fresh meat slaughtered and butchered under strict rabbinical supervision--the grocery store chain offered little in the way of such specialized foods. The store has the usual kosher dry goods--matzo, bottled gefilte fish, and kosher chicken bouillon cubes, which almost every grocery carries these days, but nothing more.

At Tom Thumb's corporate office, Connie Yates, the director of public relations, says the company considered opening a kosher section. But it decided against it after talking with Jewish community leaders and The Vaad Hakashrus of Dallas Inc., the nonprofit organization that monitors and certifies kosher preparations at commercial establishments in the region. Stores that hire Vaad rabbis David Shawel and Sholey Klein as consultants--and follow their strict rules--earn the right to use labels with the organization's symbol of approval, a small K inside a larger D.

Yates says the Vaad officials told Tom Thumb that they didn't see the opening of another kosher section in Richardson as the best use of the chain's resources. "We were encouraged to expand our offerings elsewhere," says Yates. Specifically, she says, the company began opening a section somewhere in Plano and expanding the kosher food section at a store at the corner of Forest and Preston roads.

But among some Orthodox families, the Tom Thumb decision raised all sorts of questions and speculations. These families, including the one that trooped to the grand opening right after Sabbath, were looking forward to stiff competition between two chains and a potential drop in meat prices, which can be exorbitant for kosher food.

For the Richardson family, the disappointment at the Tom Thumb grand opening doubled when they went across the street to Albertson's the next day. They found that the store had increased its kosher meat prices, presumably as a response to the lack of competition from Tom Thumb. (In general, kosher meats are $2 to $4 a pound more expensive than non-kosher cuts, largely because of the extensive rabbinical supervision required at every stage in the butchering process.) The Albertson's store manager referred all questions to the company's corporate office in Boise, Idaho, and a spokesman there did not return calls.

"There is something funny going on," said the father of the family, who does most of the shopping. "Someone has to look into it."

Was the Vaad protecting Albertson's? Or Tom Thumb's? Why weren't they trying to encourage competition to lower prices for the community? What was the organization getting out of it? Those concerns were heightened even more this week when the Kosher Link, a nearby mom-and-pop operation on the other side of the Coit and Campbell intersection, announced that it was closing because of the Albertson's competition.

Tom Thumb spokeswoman Yates steers clear of the scuttlebutt: "I cannot comment on that. I know nothing about it," she says.

But Jeri Finkelstein, executive director at the Vaad, wants to take potential detractors head-on. "There is a lot of rumor and lack of knowledge," Finkelstein says. "People don't understand this is different than if two gas stations opened across the street."

Finkelstein contends a price war would not necessarily erupt just because of the two stores' proximity. Regional managers and suppliers, she says, dictate much of the pricing at chains, so it doesn't matter whether Tom Thumb opens up a kosher section across the street from Albertson's or at a store six miles away. Any price competition will still take place, and a wider geographic community will be served.

Moreover, Finkelstein contends that Tom Thumb never even discussed the idea of hiring a kosher butcher. Ultimately, Finkelstein argues that the decision rested with Tom Thumb--a sentiment Rabbi Sholey Klein, who also works for the Vaad, echoes. "We are not in the business of telling them whether to open or not. We just tell them what is best for the community," he says.

 
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