Recent announcements affecting the availability of kosher catering for Passover and the restaurant at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (SJCC) are raising issues about the stability of Ottawa’s kosher food market.
For the first time in 53 years, Creative Kosher Catering has decided not to prepare kosher-for-Passover food – a decision that forced the cancellation of the annual Passover luncheon presented by Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
And, after four years of operation at the SJCC, United Kosher Deli closed on March 27.
“Sales are down and costs are up,” says Creative Kosher Catering’s David Smith. “The price of meat has increased. The hourly rate of a mashgiach has increased. Families are smaller and demand for kosher food is declining. The community is not supporting us.”
Although he cites personal reasons for closing the restaurant, as well as his United Kosher Catering business, owner Yudi Chein echoes Smith’s observations.
“Less people are keeping kosher,” he says. “I have not had a catering job since last August and not enough people come into the restaurant.”
Does this mean the availability of kosher food in Ottawa is threatened?
It depends on who you ask. Kosher products are available at a number of stores in Ottawa, including the Walmart on Baseline Road, which has a small kosher section, and the fresh-baked bagels at Ottawa Bagelshop are certified kosher by the Ottawa Vaad HaKashrut (OVH). While the bagel store does not have a dedicated kosher section, it does carry several prepackaged kosher products, as well as kosher-for-Passover products, brought in from Montreal.
The Metro on Greenbank is trying very hard to support kosher Ottawa, but it has not been entirely successful. While it reliably carries a large selection of Passover products annually, and has a small year-round kosher dry goods section, an attempt to expand its kosher offerings by including frozen chicken and other prepared foods failed.
“It was discouraging,” says store manager Cathy Sine. “No one was buying it and it was going in the garbage.”
Everything baked, prepared and sold at the Rideau Bakery is kosher, including at its Rideau Street coffee bar, which is strictly dairy. But even this entrenched Ottawa business is experiencing declining sales, especially around holiday time.
“Ottawa Jews are losing tradition,” says fourth generation general manager Louis Kardash. “We have not made special round Purim challahs for the last few years, and no one even asked why.”
However, there are more kosher products than ever on the shelves at Loblaws in College Square and sales have been steadily increasing, according to Jen Robillard, who has been managing the kosher department for five years. She says kosher sales represent 30 per cent of the store’s weekly income. As the largest purveyor of kosher foods and the only kosher butcher in Ottawa, the store’s chronic problem has been unreliable suppliers.
“We are at the mercy of our suppliers,” says Manny Smiley, Loblaws’ store manager. “The number of suppliers is limited, especially at Passover time, and there is not much we can do. I have been hearing that the Montreal and Toronto markets get the most and we get what is left.”
A regular complaint about Loblaws is that its prices, especiallyRabbi Levy Teitle for meat and poultry, are too high. So some Ottawans regularly make the two-hour drive to Montreal to buy kosher food or have food delivered.
Loblaws kosher manager Robillard disputes the allegations of high prices.
“I have regular customers who come here from Montreal because our prices are better,” she says. “Our London broil roast is half the price of Montreal’s and sometimes our kosher chicken is cheaper than non-kosher chicken.”
If fewer families in Ottawa are keeping kosher, and those that do are not supporting local businesses, is the local supply of kosher food at risk? Do we have an obligation as a community to support our local kosher retailers and caterers?
It harms the community when local businesses do not receive the support they need to stay viable, says Rabbi Levy Teitlebaum, director of the OVH.
“It is important to support our local establishments,” he says, adding that “just being seen buying kosher is to set an example.”
The trend toward smaller families means there are fewer simchas and, with fewer families keeping kosher, there are even fewer kosher simchas, according to Creative Kosher Catering’s Smith, who does not have a single kosher wedding booked for 2014.
With fewer Jews keeping kosher, and with costs rising, how does a smaller Jewish community move forward and maintain kashrut as an intrinsic Jewish value?
“We need to be creative as a community so that we can maintain our community identity,” says Rabbi Teitlebaum.
One of the creative solutions he is encouraging is self-catering for simchas: preparing your own food in the synagogue kitchen under the supervision of a mashgiach.
“This is kosher for a changing generation,” says Rabbi Teitlebaum. “A meaningful memory is created when the family prepares their own food for a bar mitzvah boy’s simcha.”
The rabbi also stresses that a kosher event does not necessarily have to be at a kosher venue. “I’ve never had a request that I had to turn down – even in the middle of a field,” he says. “We will find a way to make it work.”
The caterers suggest that synagogues and the OVH may have to re-evaluate their policies to determine if their fees are in the best interests of the kosher community.
“Don’t blame the caterers for high prices,” says Chein. “Synagogues are charging too much for room rentals and also charging breakage fees. Before taking into consideration the basic food costs, there are OVH licence fees and mashgiach hourly rates.”
Even the local rabbis have some soul searching to do with respect to officiating at lifecycle events at non-kosher venues, which is becoming increasingly more frequent.
“You see this more and more,” says Smith. “The rabbi is the only one eating a kosher meal.”
The kosher caterers are also looking to find ways to adapt to current realities. For Creative Kosher Catering, it means forgoing its long tradition of supplying kosher-for-Passover food.
“We will always be in the kosher food business,” says Smith. “People will always want and need kosher food, but we have to go with the times. And, right now, the times do not justify us making Passover.”
For Chein, closing up shop does not mean he is walking away. Rather, he is in discussions with a potential buyer for his catering business and plans to stay on as an employee with the new owner.
The local grocery stores are enthusiastic and extremely supportive of kosher Ottawa. The Metro on Greenbank is committed to enlarging its kosher clientele. This year, it has allotted more space and is offering more Passover products and would like to do this year round.
“People need to talk to us to tell us what they want in the store,” says store manager Sine. “Otherwise, how can we know?”
While Loblaws in College Square is unlikely to expand the floor space allotted to the kosher department, it is looking into the viability of creating a kosher café where customers can sit and chat while doing their food shopping.
“It’s a great idea,” says Loblaws manager Smiley. “We just need to figure out the logistics.”
Ottawa’s kosher food providers do need to keep their businesses viable, but this is a small community and they can only be as accommodating as supply and demand allows. Rabbi Teitlebaum believes the slowing down of the kosher economy is a part of the business cycle, and not indicative of a permanent trend. But, ultimately, he says, as Jews redefine what it means to live a modern Jewish life, the kosher decision is not just personal – it is about community.