April 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Residents Underwhelmed by Union Costco’s ‘Restored and Expanded’ Kosher Offerings

Several months ago, a small group from the Elizabeth Orthodox community initiated a petition campaign intended to persuade the Costco of Union, NJ to reinstate its designated kosher food section, and to restore popular kosher food items to the shelves. The petition resulted from the store’s lack of response to numerous prior requests of its kosher consumers after it had noticeably discontinued many popular kosher items over recent months.

Yosef Citron, who helped spearhead the campaign, was in contact with the Union Costco store manager about this issue numerous times. He originally surmised that the store’s decision had come, in part, from outside the Union Costco management. However, after numerous discussions with the Union store manager, Citron said he believes the management has been not only unresponsive, but actually dismissive of the preferences and voices of the local kosher consumers.

During one such conversation Citron was told by the Union Costco manager, regarding kosher feta cheese and turkey breast, that, “Costco doesn’t carry it.” However, Citron stated he saw these same items at other Costco locations, and also received communication from their corporate website that Costco carries and sells these items.

Citron’s recent efforts in the Elizabeth community produced a petition with close to 400 names, which he presented to the store manager about a month ago. The manager’s response? “That’s nice, but we would need ten thousand names to make a change.”

Despite the manager’s remark, Citron was pleasantly surprised to see that some kosher food items had actually been reinstated to store shelves earlier in March. Citron then said that he thought the best response from the community would be for consumers to “go buy what they do have, and let them know that you are looking for more.” He added that, “another option is to leave a note in the suggestion box (up front near the membership/service desk), because they are required to send those suggestions to corporate every day.”

Several weeks ago, the Jewish Link visited the Union Costco to report on its kosher contents. The search began for items that seemed to be typically targeted by the average kosher family—not unique or unusual products, but things most families might want on a regular basis such as sliced American cheese, shredded cheeses, packaged sliced varieties of deli meats, frozen fish, meat and poultry.

Initial observations confirmed the absence of a designated “kosher” section, as noted by Citron and others. Kosher certified items were mixed in on the general grocery shelves (pasta, tuna etc.). A few kosher poultry items were located almost by accident as they were all the way in the back of a frozen case, with small signage, nothing to distinguish that items in this particular case were kosher. After all that, there were only three kosher frozen items in the case: Empire chicken breast cutlets, Meal Mart chicken nuggets and Empire Cornish hens.

The hunt for kosher cheese products required the assistance of a store employee who pointed to a cooler nearby and could not say where the cheese was or exactly which kosher cheese items the store carried. Eventually he joined the search, resulting in the discovery of only one item: a two-pound package of shredded mozzarella cheese, tightly squeezed in and literally camouflaged amongst the other non-categorized, non-kosher cheese items. There was no appropriate signage indicating that there was a kosher item in the case.

The concern and dismay of the community was quickly becoming clear. The experience gave the feeling of Costco either not caring whether a kosher consumer could find a particular product or, possibly, poor product placement which would not help the kosher consumer to find and buy the item.

The next step was a conversation with the store’s duty manager, who stated that the management team had held several meetings about the topic during the past week, and the store was planning an infusion of kosher products that would arrive by the end of the week or early the next week. He wasn’t sure exactly what those products would be, but mentioned deli and cheese items as a likely possibility. He noted that many decisions were made at the regional level and by the corporate product buyers. He also said that there was a plan to create a special kosher section in the back of the store near the walk-in cooler, where it had previously been located.

When asked how they do their market research, so they know what the local kosher consumers would be likely to buy, he stated that they use their suggestion box. He further stated that they have a pile “this high” of those forms from kosher consumers, and that it has gotten the attention of the management.

His response regarding a kosher section for non-perishables and other items was non-committal. He simply “didn’t know what the plan was regarding those items.” He was pleasant, most attentive and even provided his on-duty hours and phone number.

At the store about two weeks later, a refrigerated case had indeed been placed in the back corner, near the entrance to the giant walk-in cooler, as promised. However, the sign read “Kirkland Deli,” not “Kosher Deli.” The case did, in fact, house several kosher products, but nothing about the display directed the kosher consumer in its direction. It certainly begs the question of why a store would add products in response to a community outcry, yet not post signage anywhere in the store directing people to those products—or worse, post signage over the case that is absolutely misleading and incorrect.

In actuality, there were two cases, located in a corner and arranged in an ‘L’ shape. A visual inventory of the products now stocked in the Kirkland Deli case revealed a lot of lox, with an equal amount of space dedicated to organic kosher “love” beets. There were kosher sliced American and mixed cheese trays, shredded mozzarella cheese packages, and several short-date perishable items like cole slaw and some dips. Also added were kosher whole salami, sliced beef pastrami and Meal Mart stuffed cabbage (but the sales sign below the product did not indicate that it was kosher). On the right of the case, but not beneath the “Kirkland Deli” sign, there were several regular meat, seafood and pork items.

So now there was a clearly unmarked “kosher case” filled with a few popular kosher items, along with short-date items that would have to be discarded if they didn’t sell quickly. And, of course, seafood and pork.

Standing in front of this case it is challenging, at best, to comprehend Costco’s intentions. After the initial visit in February, this reporter admits to being perplexed by the combination of the optimism of the duty manager and his lack of definitive product information. After seeing that case last week, and also noting no change in the frozen food offerings or signage, the confusion has not been resolved.

Rather than sit in judgment, however, perhaps another visit to Costco will better define their response to the kosher consumers, especially with the advent of Pesach. Perhaps giving them more time to post signage, organize the display and add products that are aligned with the needs and interests of the community is all that is needed.

By Ellie Wolf

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