Don’t tell everyone, but my falafel’s kosher
Richard Loebenberg’s Beth Din-approved products are a big hit with non-Jewish customers at M&S and Pret a Manger
Wholesome, kosher food lurks in places you would never expect. There is a whole range of falafelstyle snacks. All 100 per cent kosher, licensed by not just one but three separate Beth Dins — Kedassia, the LBD and SKA — but don’t expect to find them only in the supermarket’s kosher fridges.
And it is not a shelving error. Although their products are all heschered, aRichard Loebenberg, the chief executive officer of Great Food — the company which produces this falafel range — has no wish to be restricted to supermarket kosher sections.
“Being marketed as kosher actually limits sales as it is classed as ethnic, which restricts the market,” he explains.
Loebenberg is an astute enough businessman to see the strengths of retailing his products to the mainstream instead of the kosher market and his company’s turnover has grown to more than £5 million in eight years. But he is also evangelical about keeping his products kosher and does not believe that should make them more expensive.
“I want kosher to be affordable for all,” he says.
But the kosher status of his food (which is also halal) is invisible to many of his customers.
“We supply falafel to Marks & Spencer, Pret a Manger, Tesco, Leon and Morrisons. Each retailer has its own bespoke recipe which we develop with them,” he explains.
Loebenberg has been manufacturing kosher food since 1998, when he bought Steve’s Deli, a small kosher delicatessen and manufacturing unit. “I closed the deli and rebranded the products Great Food.” His company supplied Selfridges and Costco with kosher deli-style food in those days.
Loebenberg is a passionate foodie. “I’m happiest when I’m cooking,” he says. He grew up in a gourmet environment in South Africa, where he father was managing director of Woolworths. “We ate traditional eastern European Ashkenazi food at home but with a South African twist and a lot of barbecues” he recalls.
At the time the families behind Marks & Spencer in the UK and Woolworths in South Africa had a close relationship. “The Sieffs — the founder of Marks & Spencer — would pass us recipes developed with the Roux brothers, who were consultants to M&S, to put on Woolworths’ shelves,” he says.
This partnership brought him his own opportunity. “In 1976 I was red-carpeted into London to train with Marks & Spencers.” He was dispatched to the the finest restaurants and manufacturers of gourmet foods in Europe with top chefs, including the Roux Brothers who were then consultants to M&S. “Ironically, I helped to set up Marks & Spencer’s charcuterie business” he laughs.
His time there gave him a thorough training in food sourcing and buying, and in 1989, he founded The Real Deli, importing fine fish, meat and vegetarian delicatessen foods from Europe.
He supplied many top London restaurants, selling to chefs like John Torode (then at Quaglino’s, now of Masterchef fame), Anton Edelmann and Anton Mosimann. “Torode was very pleasant and charming and had a discerning palate,” Loebenberg recalls.
But in 1996 he suffered a viral stroke and stopped working for 18 months. This brush with serious illness influenced his business ethos.
“Healthy eating is the only way forward,” he says. He resolved that his products would be vegetarian and free from nuts, gluten and additives. He also decided he would bake and not fry his products.
“Why use the best quality of produce only to allow it to be soaked in oils which deteriorate as the cooking process continues? Food commercially cooked in oil will never be a clean eat. Baked not fried is a vision I have had for many years and in 2009 we were able to transfer all our products from fried to baked.”
He has followed up this belief by donating to various organisations and charities promoting healthy eating. He had a role in the creation of the London Jewish Cultural Centre’s Food Academy and donated a percentage of his products’ sales to Fusion — the LJCC’s youth division — with the money used to teach children about food and cooking. He and wife Jackie also spend time in schools promoting awareness of healthy eating.
“We sponsored a Yom Ha’atzmaut breakfast at JCoSS last year where they taught a group of children how to make falafel,” he says.