(JNS) Announced just weeks before industry-standard Kosherfest said that it would end its 33-year run, the inaugural Kosherpalooza—held on June 28 in Secaucus, N.J.—was billed as the largest kosher-food festival of all time.
In fact, it reflects a changing of the industry guard, transitioning from a standard trade show to showcasing personalities as well as products.
Shlomo Klein, chief operating officer at the Cedarhurst, N.Y.-based Fleishigs magazine (the Yiddish title means “meat”), which was the organizer of the event, told JNS that the magazine has been in the food-publishing business for a decade now.
“On the consumer side, we got a lot of comments, messages and emails from people that they wanted to be more involved,” Klein told JNS.
Klein said that kosher-food entertainment—from chefs coming to people’s homes to food competitions—has grown significantly.
“This was kind of the natural next step for our magazine to bring Fleishigs to an actual live event where people can come taste food. They can take in demos. They can play games. They can meet their favorite influencers and cookbook authors,” he said.
Some 3,800 people paid $150 a ticket and made their way to the Meadowlands Exposition Center, where they could meet 125 vendors and fellow festival travelers.
Attendees could sample kosher cheeses and meats—in that order, for those who keep kosher are required to wait a specific time after eating dairy products before consuming meat, and a much longer period going from meat to dairy—supplements and silverware, and there were also cooking classes and competitions on tap.
‘It feels like a smorgasbord’
Sara Maltz, CEO of Weighless Cookies—“organic baked goods made with only healthy dairy, soy and gluten-free ingredients,” per its site—told JNS the event was different from the sort to which she is accustomed.
“But it’s actually really nice to actually talk to the customers, and it’s not always like a business thing,” she told JNS. “It feels like a smorgasbord. I hope they come back again next year.”
Brent Delman, who owns The Cheese Guy, told JNS that trade shows are great, but he wanted to interact directly with consumers to hear both compliments and criticism. At the festival, Delman exhibited “super-kosher” products, which are made under a particularly strict rabbinic standard.
“We have things like brie from France, and also a locally made brie that is really funky,” he told JNS. “We have a four-year-aged Parmesan. We really love getting into the hard cheeses—things that have never been kosher before.”
The Millers, an Amish family, brought their eggs—used by Meant to Be Natural Food—to the show.
Abie Korn, the company’s haredi manager, has worked with the family’s farm for six years. The farm produces raw organic milk from cows, which eat 100% grass, and eggs from chickens, which move to different pastures daily for grass feeding. The latter process, called “mobile pasturing,” is unique in the kosher industry, according to Korn.
“Our chickens eat more healthier food than humans,” Korn told JNS.
The food offerings were but a small part of the festival, held on a convention center floor. A DJ blasted modern, Jewish music, and Israeli-American rapper Kosha Dillz—né Rami Matan Even-Esh—stopped by. (His rapper name is a play on Kosher Dill, a former title he used when performing.)
Near the DJ, contestants could stand side by side at a long table for a “wine-glass challenge,” wherein they sought to tug on a piece of tissue paper beneath full glasses in an effort to pull the glasses toward them without spilling.
Elsewhere, attendees in a “hot-sauce contest” competed to see who could punish his or her esophagus the most with increasing levels of heat.
Craig and Gabi from West Hempstead on Long Island enjoyed the variety and the festive atmosphere.
“It’s been amazing. There are so many different and delicious, interesting things to try and learn about,” said Craig. “I think in the last few years, the whole industry has expanded a lot.”
Gabi, who held her own in the hot-sauce contest, told JNS that she appreciated the variety of the sauces. “It used to be that there was like one kosher hot sauce, and now there are different flavors and different companies,” he said. “It was super fun.”
‘Everybody keeps upping their game’
Cooking classes were a highlight of the event.
Naomi Ross, a cooking instructor and food writer, held court at the floor’s main area with a full kitchen at her disposal in a television studio-like setting. There was a large plasma screen overhead, and multiple cameras showed her step-by-step process to the audience.
“I have people coming over saying, ‘I have your book. I watched you live,’ and it’s fun to actually see people face to face,” she told JNS.
Paula Shoyer, who teaches French and Jewish baking classes in the Washington, D.C, area, followed Ross into the makeshift kitchen. She told JNS that she has attended “all kinds of different kosher food festivals” for some two decades. “It’s so great to keep this tradition going,” she said.
Walking around the exhibitions, one notices changes in the industry over the last two decades, Shoyer said.
“You’ll see all these healthier products. People today in the kosher world want to eat what everybody else is eating in the regular world,” she said. “So everybody keeps upping their game to gain those customers.”
Across the convention floor, butcher Bosh Boshnack dispensed lessons in nikkur, the process of making an animal kosher by removing forbidden fats and the sciatic nerve.
“My personal thing is education. You’ll go to one butcher, and they’ll have four different London broils, each a different cut. You go to one butcher and they have a French roast, and the other butcher has a French roast … and they’re different cuts,” Boshnack told JNS.
“Teaching people how to identify the cuts they’re using and how to cook them properly makes for a better experience for the people for kosher meat,” he added. “Especially with kosher meat being so expensive, they get the best possible experience out of kosher meat.”
The industry veteran told JNS the business has moved away from a mom-and-pop style sector.
“You’re seeing a lot more charcuterie vendors. Meat prices are going through the roof. You’re seeing a lot more professionality in what used to be thought of as a heimish industry,” he said. (The Yiddish word means “homey.”) “Now you see a lot of young professionals getting involved. People leaving good jobs, opening restaurants, starting companies.”
People demanding that the same non-kosher products they see online be made available to them are driving the market, added Boshnack.
Levana Kirschenbaum, a New York City-based celebrity chef, told JNS that while the kosher industry is changing, tradition still takes precedence over modernity.
“The mistake was to put tradition on one side and modern on another side. I don’t see any reason why tradition cannot be executed in a modern way,” she said. “Now it’s easier and easier to get ingredients. It’s all at your reach.”
‘Things can be saved from going to waste’
Beyond food and drink, Kosherpalooza vendors also hawked supplements, upscale dinnerware and Shabbat-compliant appliances. Masbia Soup Kitchen Network, which held carrot-peeling contests and other games at its booth, with proceeds going to its New York City-based charitable cause, was also on hand.
“There is no kosher event without some charity,” Alexander Rapaport, Masbia executive director, told JNS.
Rapaport, who was very surprised by the Kosherpalooza turnout, said that leftover food from the event was to be donated to Masbia for distribution to the needy.
“We’re also encouraging people that whenever they have things that are closer to their expiration date, we can always take them and give them out to people in need. You can take fresh stuff, but there’s always in the food industry things that can be saved from going to waste to put in people’s stomachs,” Rapaport said. “That’s what we want people to take away from us here today.”
Klein, the Fleishigs executive, was running around the expo center all morning and afternoon. “It’s great to see how everyone wants to be a part of it and wants to get kosher out there,” he told JNS.
Attendees came from far and wide, some of them very determined to arrive, even as there were a lot of canceled flights that week, he noted.
“You have people here from Florida. We saw reservations for tickets coming in from California and even Israel,” he said. “People really made the effort here.”