PITTSBURGH —In response to requests from local rabbis in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, Giant Eagle here has spent the past couple of months converting the bakery at its Squirrel Hill location into a fully kosher operation.
“We just opened this and we're excited,” said Larry Reuss, senior director of bakery for Giant Eagle, noting that the bakery has been kosher parve for the past month now.
“The rabbis actually approached us,” he told SN. “They thought there was a need in the community for another kosher bakery, so we thought we'd give it a shot to see if we could do this.
“We've been working with the rabbis for several months now making sure of the things we needed to do to change the bakery over, and that the ingredients were right. Also, as an organization, we're trying to be a lot more diverse and we thought that this would be a pretty good thing to do in the community there.”
Squirrel Hill has had a large Jewish population since the 1920s. According to a 2002 study by the United Jewish Federation, 33% of the Jewish population of greater Pittsburgh lives in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, and another 14% of the population lives in the neighborhoods surrounding Squirrel Hill.
In addition to Jewish day schools and numerous synagogues, the neighborhood has a few kosher restaurants and one other kosher bakery, named Sweet Tammy's, on the same street as Giant Eagle.
The Squirrel Hill Giant Eagle bakery carries mostly the same types of items it did prior to the conversion, but some ingredients had to be altered or substituted, which took some time.
“We didn't want to make it that much different, we wanted customers to see the same type of items in the bakery there, but we did have to get different suppliers for many of the products,” Reuss said.
He noted that many of the items the bakery offered were already certified Kosher. For those products, there was little that needed to be done.
“Some of the products we had, like some of the par-bakes and some of the thaw, proof and bake rolls, those companies were already kosher parve. Once we got the bakery itself kosher-ized, it was OK to bring those items in and they just naturally became kosher parve items. But, things like cake and other items like that — cookies were big for us — we had to go out and find a different supplier. We're making those items now.”
For example, thumbprint cookies are a big item for Giant Eagle bakeries, so now, the Squirrel Hill location offers a kosher thumbprint cookie. A lot of the breads are kosher parve as well, Reuss said.
“So there's not a whole lot of difference from a customer point of view,” he explained, noting that changes in production methods and ingredients were the primary difference. “But, we're showing a lot of the same types of items to all of our customers at this particular store. It's all really good, it's not just the kosher customer that likes shopping here.”
The market for kosher food is approximately $100 billion, serving over 10 million customers in the U.S. with an annual growth rate of about 15%, according to the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association's “What's In Store 2009” report.
Also, a kosher claim was the most frequently used claim on new products in 2007, according to Mintel's Global New Product Database. And, according to a survey from a recent Kosherfest trade show, only 21% kosher consumers purchase kosher products for purely religious reasons.
The bakery has gotten a few comments on items that couldn't be carried as a result of the conversion, but Reuss said that since the response in general has been so positive, the bakery plans to work through the issues with those particular items.
While there are no new products in the kosher bakery, there are some items that have grown in popularity.
“We're selling a lot more of some things like bagels, challah bread, so those things have really picked up for us,” Reuss said.
Signage and stickers on every item in the bakery communicates to customers that the items are kosher and made at the store. In addition, “the store manager and the bakery manager have really been instrumental,” in reaching out to shoppers, Reuss said. “They know a lot of the customers that come in to the store and they've been talking to them about what has changed and what's going to change, so they've really put the word out.”
Shoppers might also notice that the bakery's service counter will go unstaffed on Saturdays, in observance of Shabbat.
While the customer response has been “very, very good,” according to Reuss, the company has no plans yet of expanding its kosher bakeries to other store locations.
“We just wanted to get ourselves situated, let the dust settle before we moved to something else,” Reuss told SN.
“You never know down the road, but we would like to send some of these products to stores that are in need of kosher products and think we can certainly work that out,” he said.