Retailers who open a kosher deli department undertake a commitment almost unparalleled in the supermarket industry: Certification requires strict adherence to age-old procedures and capital expenditures on separate equipment, fixtures and wares; dedicated training of associates staffing the counter; and vigilant oversight by a third party.
But, the rewards can be plentiful, paid in the form of customer loyalty and trust, according to retailers and industry experts.
Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, is one of a growing number of supermarket operators who've found kosher delis are worth the effort. The chain's only kosher deli, which opened six years ago, has remained relatively unchanged as the majority of the local consumers continue to demand traditional kosher items.
"We chose to open a kosher deli in order to meet the strong demand from the long-established Jewish community in this area," said John Highbaugh, director of food service for Minyard Food Stores. "There's a large Jewish population here in northern Dallas and as a result, we actually carry over 2,000 kosher items in various departments throughout the store."
Within the kosher deli, Minyard offers a mix of packaged and refrigerated chicken, beef and seafood products. They also sell cheeses, luncheon meats and various kosher salads including potato, chicken and seafood.
"We don't offer hot or prepared foods since we don't prepare anything on site, mainly because we don't have a rabbi or mashkiach here each day to certify and approve the food," said Highbaugh. "Instead, we only order kosher-certified deli products from specialty foods distributors who can guarantee their certification, and we keep everything refrigerated separately to ensure the highest quality."
Although the deli is not run or supervised by a rabbi or mashkiach, Minyard takes lengthy measures to ensure the deli is operated according to kosher standards. To keep these items completely separate from other foods, the kosher deli and regular deli are divided by service cases, a wall and a door, said Highbaugh.
"There's also an aisle between our kosher deli and regular deli and we take extreme precaution to make sure all packages that arrive are sealed and kept separate from other foods," he said. "And, only approved personnel who have received the proper kosher training are allowed to work in the kosher deli."
Keeping shoppers happy and satisfied is one of the most important issues to Minyard when it comes to its kosher deli. Highbaugh said that even though the majority of consumers who shop in the store's kosher deli are Jewish, there are some non-Jewish shoppers who purchase kosher items primarily for their quality.
During various holiday seasons such as Hanukkah and Passover, the deli case is frequently surrounded by displays of traditional Jewish candies, Matzo mixes and even candles and other items pertaining to that particular holiday.
During this time, Minyard also advertises its kosher deli items in its circulars to generate awareness of the products that are available. Highbaugh said that Passover and Hanukkah are generally the only times the deli is highlighted, since most of its customers are year-round patrons.
He added that many of the Jewish consumers who shop the northern Dallas Minyard store are very traditional in their purchase habits and, therefore, expect only the highest quality kosher items. And, while many kosher delis around the country are experimenting with new and unique types of kosher foods, Highbaugh said that Minyard plans to maintain its traditional menu of kosher items as long as its Jewish consumers continue demanding the same products.
Nevertheless, a number of new items are starting to appear in many kosher delis across the country, said Menacham Lubinsky, president of Integrated Marketing Communications, the New York-based marketing company and organizer of the annual Kosherfest trade show.
"We're noticing a trend where stores are branching out from traditional kosher deli products into healthy, fat-free, natural and even vegetarian foods within delis," he said. "There are also more products like sausages that can be used along with other ingredients to create meals, and more international products like taco sauces and other Mexican and ethnic foods that offer consumers a wider variety -- you can buy much more than just pastrami from a kosher deli today."
Lubinsky said that many of the development and introduction of these new products stem from the larger trends at work throughout supermarkets as consumers in general continue to become more health conscious and demand an array of different choices.
Art Klawans, director of Kosher Food Distributors Association in Chicago, has also noticed an influx of new food items entering the kosher deli category.
"Consumers are wanting more mainstream types of foods like pizzas, Asian meals and other world-type foods that are kosher so they can maintain their lifestyles but still have variety," he said. "We've seen a lot of consumers purchasing these items throughout the store and kosher delis are now responding to that strong desire."
The overall demand for kosher foods has prompted kosher deli management to become more creative with specific food offerings, but it has also inspired some to expand their business into catering, said Lubinsky.
"With more products to choose from, Jewish shoppers are buying more often from kosher delis and there is also a growing number of non-Jewish consumers who are showing an interest in kosher foods," he said. "Because there's such a growing demand for kosher, a lot of the delis are branching out into catering for small parties and business meetings."
Howard Solganik, president of Solganik and Associates, a food consulting company based in Dayton, Ohio, said that another, somewhat unexpected group of consumers is also becoming increasingly interested in kosher foods. According to Solganik, the growing Muslim population in the United States often chooses to purchase kosher foods when certified Halal items are not available.
"Many Muslims also follow specific dietary guidelines that do not allow them to eat pork, so there is some crossover between the foods that are deemed kosher and those that are Halal and considered appropriate to consume by Muslims," he said. "So, when traditional Halal items are not available, many of these consumers turn to kosher foods instead."
Solganik said that most kosher delis are located in metropolitan areas where heavy concentrations of Jewish consumers tend to live. But, even though there are many kosher delis scattered throughout the United States, he adds that rabbinical-supervised kosher delis aren't as prevalent for a number of reasons.
"Anywhere there is a large concentration of specific ethnic groups, there tends to be specialty stores that cater to the lifestyles of those consumers," said Solganik. "In most major metropolitan areas where there are a lot of Jewish consumers -- and now, Muslim consumers, too -- there will be kosher delis, but delis supervised by a rabbi are typically found in cities where the concentration of Jewish consumers is really high, like New York and even here in Dayton."
Solganik said that even with strong consumer demand for certified kosher delis, many grocers aren't interested in accepting the exorbitant costs of having a service kosher deli. The main costs involved in running this type of kosher deli entail purchasing additional deli equipment for food cutting, storage and preparation that must be kept separate from any other departments' equipment. Extensive personnel training and other management expenses can also be very costly, "sometimes costing more than it's worth to bring in additional business," said Solganik.
Although many supermarkets like Minyard Food Stores do not offer prepared foods, Klawans said that those who do are now offering a lot more choices for consumers in the form of prepared cuisine.
"More than just traditional sliced salami and luncheon meats, many kosher delis are selling pastas, pizzas and other single-serve items," he said. "Consumers want this variety, but they also want items that they don't have to take home and prepare."
Solganik said that many kosher delis are adding such prepared items to their menus in response to consumers who are increasingly looking for ways to save time.
"Jewish consumers, just like all other consumers, are very time-starved and they want kosher foods that are ready-to-eat or quick to prepare at home," he said. He noted that consumers will undoubtedly continue to be concerned with convenience as time passes and, as a result, kosher delis will continue introducing products that not only meet kosher guidelines, but also meet this growing demand for convenience.
Lubinsky sees consumer demand for variety also influencing food choices in kosher delis in the future. "Jewish consumers are finding more and more kosher foods to choose from and as non-Jewish consumers become more interested in these foods, too, we expect to see a lot more variety to meet everyone's demands," he said. "As far as food trends, we expect to see more portion control and more international items like Mediterranean foods to answer the demand for diversity."