How we're bringing kosher to the foodies
Adam Bass describes the challenges of getting innovative products — including his own — onto the supermarket shelves
Eureka Cove's spiced fish
Is kosher about to have a moment? We love to cook - our kitchens are stuffed with all the latest cookbooks - so why do most major supermarkets' kosher sections still sag with matzah meal, chrein and Mrs Elswood's 80s hairdo?
According to food journalist Angelica Malin, kosher food is becoming more popular in the mainstream market.
"Last year we saw so many Jewish-inspired restaurants opening - from Honey & Co to Jago - and as a result, we've seen a rising interest in kosher food too. Online food delivery service, Deliveroo, has recently added a kosher section to their offering and food brands are promoting that they're kosher as a sign of quality even if they're not targeting the kosher market."
Tony Goodman of Tenacre Crisps backs this view. "Dairy-free has always been a big part of the Jewish diet, and retailers have seen a large number of non-Jewish buyers looking to the kosher aisle for dairy-free products."
So if Sephardi and Israeli food restaurants are currently popular, why aren't the shelves lined with authentic kosher versions of the latest ingredients like preserved lemons, harissa and tagine paste?
Part of the reason is that the category is still complicated for retail buyers: there's the annual Passover product refresh to deal with and every seventh year, stores near Orthodox customers see a downturn in the sale of Israeli goods, when the more observant avoid Israeli-grown foods during the shmitta year.
Noor Ali, category manager world foods at Morrisons, bemoans the lack of innovation from suppliers. "Kosher is a relatively small market for us, but we do want to support our Jewish customers. The problem is a lack of innovation from kosher suppliers, who are quite static. There is more opportunity for growth in this market."
Another buyer, who preferred not to be named, was terrified of the volley of complaints she would receive by disrupting the kosher shelf, explaining "it's quite a vocal audience". Given the frustrations, the average kosher buyer's shelf life is often shorter than the products they're buying.
Hummus and salads form Me Too! and Providence Deli's condiment range are bringing fresh flavours to kosher products
However, there are some brands pushing new flavours onto retail shelves and fridges. One is Ramona Hazan's Me Too! range, which includes different flavours of hummus and dips, soups and salads and a recently launched seaweed hummus.
She has also noticed an increasingly sophisticated consumer market which has fuelled a recent increase in new kosher products.
"There is a growing young Jewish market who know more about food and these customers expect and deserve innovation."
Hazan agrees the kosher category as a whole needs innovation, arguing it's up to complacent suppliers to provide new kosher products. "It's such a small part of the supermarket and so once a product is in there it tends to stay in, that way the supermarket can tick the box marked kosher."
For new suppliers entering the market the hechsher system can be a quagmire. Richard Loebenberg, owner of Eureka Cove, is a former M&S buyer who founded kosher brand Great Foods and is now showcasing a new range of kosher chilled fish and meat meal products using a range of interesting spices and flavours under the brand, Eureka Cove.
"The number of different hechshers is a big obstacle to growth and innovation," he says.
Loebenberg believes that allergen laws, tighter controls over ingredients and high-quality production requirements mean every factory could qualify as kosher, but that the kosher authorities make manufacturers jump through too many hoops.
"It's easier for the kosher authorities to say no than yes and different authorities have different demands. The resulting proliferation of alternative and confusing certifications make it very hard for manufacturers to know which authority to go with, and they often choose hechshers which no one buys."
Starting a new kosher brand is also a costly undertaking. Producers can either go to an existing kosher manufacturer or ask a non-kosher manufacturer to do a separate kosher product run - which means committing to enough product sales to make it worthwhile for the manufacturer.
When searching for a manufacturer for my Providence Deli range of ambient sauces and condiments I chose to work with a high-quality kosher manufacturer, but the choices were limited.
Loebenberg successfully found non-kosher factories prepared to clean down their equipment for special production runs, but this involved a bigger initial investment, as he has to pay for the clean down and new set up of the manufacturing plant to fulfil kosher rules.
His view is that although kosher is a small market in the UK, it remains a unique opportunity that we still need to exploit by convincing the food-buying public that kosher is a symbol of quality.
"In America kosher is a huge market with six million Jews and 60 million consumers who eat and recognise the goodness of kosher food," he says.
The climate is right so the message to anyone who is thinking of bringing innovation to the kosher category is very simple: get the product right and get the pricing right and go after the supermarkets with a professional approach; the buyers should welcome you with open arms.
eurekacove.com; providence-deli.com; metoofoods.com