Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Along with the noshing and schmoozing at Kosherfest on November 9-10, real business was conducted. Cancelled last year due to the pandemic, Kosherfest, the trade show where buyers and sellers meet, returned to the Meadowlands with makers of new products looking for distributors, and distributors looking for shelf space at retailers. Although the numbers were down, the return of the in-person show was something to celebrate, said Menachem Lubinsky, president of Lubicom Business Consulting, founder and co-producer of Kosherfest. In a phone interview, Lubinsky said approximately 60 booths were vacant due to travel restrictions that kept overseas companies away, about half from Israel. But the people who were there got a lot accomplished. “People were serious, there was more time to interface,” he said. “It was a positive experience. Some said ‘let’s always keep it this way.’”

The continuing supply-chain difficulties, and the consequences of an imbalance in supply and demand are having a reverberating effect on kosher-product availability and pricing. Lubinsky said he talked to a restaurant chef who said he had to modify his menu because he couldn’t get certain ingredients. The labor shortage throughout the economy that began during the lockdown has not gotten better. When there’s a shortage of manpower at the factory, the number of shifts has to be cut and the same number of products can’t be produced. Then products have to be transported to the stores. Lubinsky told a story that exemplifies the problem. During Sukkot, a retailer called Coca Cola in a panic about needing more supplies. The company said they’d be happy to send a tractor trailer with soda…but could the store send a driver? Empty shelves produce anxiety in consumers, who then start to hoard products. Who can forget the run on toilet paper and paper towels at the start of the lockdown?

Producers and retailers are demonstrating their resilience with new coping strategies. Lubinksy said in some respects kosher retailers are doing better than the general market. Retailers facing shortages from valued suppliers are looking for added or alternative suppliers for the first time. With so many brands producing similar items, a shortage in one can be replaced by another. In order to keep the shelves stocked, retailers are more willing to take less than the best quality. They are also changing the way they order and stock supplies. Previously, computer projections determined purchases. Now, retailers are ordering more to keep in stockrooms and freezers. Shortages are driving prices higher and at least some of the costs have to be passed to consumers.

Kosher is still a growing category in the food industry with a life of its own, said Lubinsky. There are 36 independent kosher markets with over 20,000 square feet filled with products. Even with restrictions on in-person dining, 25 new kosher restaurants opened during the pandemic. New products, the engine driving the kosher market, are still being developed: There were over 300 at Kosherfest. Mashgichim, whom Lubinksy calls the real heroes of the pandemic, made over 25,000 visits to factories, when travel around the world was severely limited, to ensure the continuation of processed food according to established standards of kashrut. These figures make a case for both the health and future of the kosher food industry, despite all the challenges created by the pandemic.

By Bracha Schwartz


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