Kosher competition

Few would detect it when they whiz past the Exxon gas station, the Boston Market outlet, the Albertson's grocery, and the other merchants at the intersection of Campell and Coit roads. But a small war has erupted in the suburban Richardson shopping mall environs recently.

It's a kosher war.
So far no one has thrown any treyf (Yiddish for non-kosher food), but the Albertson's on the southeast corner remodeled in mid-November and opened a kosher butcher shop, a kosher deli, and a kosher bakery. All would be fine except that the additions pit the grocery store in a direct battle for customers against The Kosher Link, a small family-owned butcher and deli that has operated across the street for some 17 years.

Since Albertson's launched the new sections on November 19, store managers say the enthusiastic response of Jewish customers has overwhelmed them. "I was surprised at the number of customers that are specifically looking for these goods," says Bernie Brennan, an assistant grocery manager,

But for Deborah Linksman, owner of The Kosher Link, Albertson's move has raised serious question about her business' survival.

"Yeah, the demand for kosher goods is getting bigger," says Linksman. "But is it getting big enough for two stores here? No. Is it frustrating? Yes."

Linksman says it's too early to tell how heavily her larger, corporate-owned neighbors' foray into the kosher business will hurt her own. But she expects Albertson's new competition will do some damage--sooner rather than later.

Already, Linksman says, Albertson's has tempted her onetime loyal customers with slashed prices, and she suspects the store is willing to suffer loss leaders. Over Thanksgiving, for instance, Albertson's offered kosher turkeys for 99 cents a pound, a price, Linksman says, her smaller operation could not match. (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.)

"We're not trying to put anyone out of business," says Albertson's assistant store director Bill Ross.

For the Jewish community, the notion that a serious competition for their dollars could occur amid the sunburnt mallscape of Richardson, a part of the country long associated with Southern Baptists, reflects the tremendous growth in the Jewish population. Since the early '70s, the North Texas Jewish population has almost doubled to around 40,000, according to local Jewish groups.

That growth has spawned a new niche in the retail industry in Dallas. Albertson's is the third grocery store chain in Dallas in the past seven years to open kosher sections. Farther south in North Dallas, at the intersection of Forest Lane and Preston Road, another kosher battle has gone on for several years. The Minyards Food Store on the northeast corner opened a kosher bakery and deli three years ago. Four years before that, the Tom Thumb Food & Pharmacy Center on the southeast had started a kosher deli and grocery aisle with more than 1,000 items. Now, a company spokeswoman says, the Tom Thumb store plans to remodel next year, and she wouldn't rule out the possibility of an expanded kosher section.

The Vaad Hakashrus, a Dallas organization of families who keep or aspire to keep kosher kitchens, has been the nudging force behind many of the expansions. In the past 10 years, the Vaad Hakashrus has transformed from a club of a few Jewish families looking for kosher meats into a 400-member nonprofit consumer institution that employs two full-time rabbis who monitor and certify the kosher preparations at commercial establishments

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. The K is for kosher and the D for Dallas. The markings are ones that the kosher cognoscenti can easily recognize.

Following the rabbis' rules is not easy. Kosher laws are strict, extensive, and not easily understood by the novice. Forbidden under kosher law is the consumption of pork or other animals with cloven hooves. Shellfish is also a no-no. Food prepared under kosher rules cannot touch any of this treyf. A worker at the kosher deli, for instance, cannot use one of the meat knives to cut the ham sandwich he brought in for lunch. The rules also bar the consumption at the same meal of milk and meat. In order to ensure that dairy and meat products don't commingle, a kosher kitchen must have separate sinks, plates, cookware, and flatware--one marked for meat, one for milk, and another for pareve--the Hebrew term for food products that can be consumed with either milk or meat meals because they contain neither.

Albertson's consulted heavily with the Vaad rabbis before opening their new sections. And, at the rabbis' prodding, Albertson's has tried to outkosher its competitors--both The Kosher Link, across the street, and the Minyards and Tom Thumb in North Dallas. The store has opened the only all-pareve bakery in town--and possibly the only one in a grocery store nationwide, Vaad rabbi Klein claims. At the store, all the donuts, muffins, and breads are made without butter, milk, or other animal fats. Hence, there is no risk that milk and meat will accidentally mix--always a threat in even a well-meaning kosher bakery that produces dairy and pareve goods.

How do you forgo the butter and milk and still keep the products tasty? "We have pareve cow in the back," jokes Shawel, who had stopped by the Albertson's for a regular inspection recently. Nancy Finch, the head baker at the Albertson's store, says it's the increased vegetable oils and lower temperatures that actually do the trick.

Finch had never worked in a kosher bakery before starting this operation for Albertson's. She has learned much, she says, from the rabbinical consultants. But sometimes her advisors have failed her. They told her to expect some increase in the demand on Thursdays and Fridays for challah--a traditional braided egg bread served at the Sabbath meal. But Finch was overwhelmed. "They didn't tell me that I was going to go through 500 loaves on those days," she says.

If the observant Jewish customers have any worries that Albertson's, a Boise, Idaho-based chain, has followed all the kosher rules, those shoppers can take comfort in the sight of Hershey Reichman strolling down the aisles of the grocery store. A bearded fellow with the traditional uncut sideburns of orthodox Jews, Reichman wears a black skull cap and a white butcher's overcoat. At Albertson's he is the full-time mashgiach, the Hebrew term for a rabbinically trained and certified supervisor who guards the kosherness of a butcher operation.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Reichman is the son of a former owner of the store now operated by Linksman. The older Reichman sold it to Linksman almost five years ago.

Although his Albertson's store managers and bosses insist no competitive intent exists with The Kosher Link, the Yeshiva-trained mashgiach seems more than happy to delineate what advantages his new operation has over the shop formerly owned by his dad.

"People want convenience," Reichman says. "We have eight checkouts instead of one. We have fresh-cut meats 24 hours a day.


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