Occasionally there is a milestone that is noteworthy not only for the event itself but the enduring effect it has on an entire industry or community. One such milestone was the opening of the Pomegranate Kosher Supermarket in Flatbush 13 years ago this month. Although there were large kosher grocery stores before it opened, it was a trailblazer for large gourmet kosher supermarkets which today dot the nation. Just last week two such huge (usually more than 18,000 square feet) opened in Cleveland (The Grove) and Passaic NJ (Aisle One). By last count, there were nearly 50 such large kosher independent kosher supermarkets in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Maryland, and Michigan.
The kosher landscape in the US has gone through several major transitions that largely mirror the changing face of the American Jewish population. At the turn of the 20th Century, for example, with the arrival of large numbers of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, New York was dotted with small kosher grocery stores and butchers, many of whom transplanted their trades from der alter heim. Even Jews who were no longer meticulous about kosher, still shopped at “Bosor Kosher” stores. The kosher butcher was simply a part of life, albeit that the kashrus might have been suspect. With the arrival of the refugees from the churban and in 1956 from Hungary, the landscape changed as the standards of kosher were redefined and greatly upgraded. Glatt Kosher and Cholov Yisroel, virtually nonexistent in the American milieu prior to their arrival, became the popular standard.
As the “heimishe” community grew, the thousands of kosher butchers throughout New York “kosher” butchers virtually disappeared. Instead, the supermarket industry took notice of the changed demographics and bought into kosher. Large chains like Waldbaum’s, A&P, Pathmark and Shoprite began catering to the community alongside the small Mom/Pop grocery stores. As the emerging Orthodox neighborhoods grew, so did the kosher offerings at these supermarkets. The trend migrated from being a strictly New York phenomenon to a nationwide trend as almost every major supermarket chain launched kosher sections, especially during the Pesach season when most Jews at least observe a Seder. Even supermarkets in remote areas might have carried matzoh, grape juice, gefilte fish, borscht, and yahrzeit candles for Pesach.
Simultaneously with the growth of the frum community was the meteoric explosion of kosher products. In the mid 80’s there were an estimated 16,000 food items that were certified kosher. By 2020 that number was well into the six-figures with the number approaching well over 200,000. More significantly, almost 80% of ingredient products were certified kosher as kosher became widespread and even the giants like Coca Cola and Dannon required kosher ingredients.
Even as the kosher retail scene was evolving, so did the shopping experience. The average kosher shopper used to have to visit several stores just to put together a Shabbos. I can remember my late mother’s Erev Shabbos route that included a bakery for challah, a butcher for meat, a fish store (where the fish store actually ground the white or carp for gefilte fish) and a produce store. But as communities grew and shopping areas became more congested, shoppers were increasingly looking for the “one-stop” experience.
The arrival of the super kosher stores fulfilled the new normal and frankly catered to the busy lifestyle of a new generation. It also forced many smaller grocery stores and even butchers to add product lines that were far afield just to meet the demands of shoppers for “one-stop” shopping. So, it was not surprising when a well-known Brooklyn butcher transitioned into a supermarket. Many of the big-name supermarkets like Pathmark and Waldbaum’s went under in the interim, further advancing the prominence of the independent kosher stores. There was also a rapidly growing younger generation that coveted better quality items and were willing and able to pay higher prices for the premium or gourmet foods.
While big kosher supermarkets were expanding including such well known names like Gourmet Glatt, Evergreen, and Season’s, another segment of the retail market took notice and entered the kosher fray. Club stores like Costco, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, and Sam’s Club began to appreciate the value of, adding kosher symbols to their grocery inventories. At one point, Wal-Mart boasted that it was selling kosher in more than 500 stores. And you could even find kosher at 711’s and select gas stations.
What this trend pointed to was the fact that retailers took note of the growing charedi community and more importantly their purchasing power. One supermarket executive once told me that he would open a full kosher section for a community of no more than 100 people because “they are loyal customers, have big families, and spend lavishly on products in the rest of the store (in addition to kosher). In almost every growing community whether in Henderson or Houston, the supermarkets and club stores took notice, further enhancing the kosher boom.
But the most encouraging trend is the continued expansion of the large kosher independents. With stores averaging more than 16,000 square feet, they have the space to showcase a huge selection of kosher products. Added to this trend was the launch of the Bingo stores in Boro Park, Monsey, and Lakewood. Although more often compared to a kosher Costco, they especially cater to the large families although they may not have the selection of a kosher independent and sell everything from school supplies to shtreimlech. Bingo is owned by the same principals who own the Osher Ad supermarket chain in Israel.
The growth and expansion of the frum community has in general been a blessing for retail in all categories. People are investing into retail, many fixing up their stores in a way that was unthinkable just 5 or so years ago. Even with the Covid-19 pandemic the growth and development of kosher and by extension other retail that cater to the heimishe community has been nothing short of phenomenal. One retailer told me that with a good product and good service “you can develop a loyal clientele that general retail cannot begin to emulate