Attention shoppers — kosher food on Aisle 9

Fresh-baked pita and butchered meats. Grocery aisles filled with snacks, sauces and mixes. Ice-packed deli cases teeming with exotic smoked fish and ribbed slabs of beef bacon.

Whether they're packaged specialties or freshly prepared, kosher foodstuffs once were part of everyday life for many Bay Area Jews originally from the East Coast and abroad.

In moving to California, the transplants sadly consigned to memory many of the favorite foods of their culture that were historically unavailable in the West. They satiated their cravings on occasional forays back East.

But in recent years, retailers in cities, suburbs and coastal burgs throughout Northern California have substantially expanded their kosher food selections, with some kosher sections rivaling the markets on the East Coast.

While no one knows exactly how much more kosher food is on the collective shelf, most agree that expanding selections is necessary in the highly competitive grocery business.

That move last year earned some retailers $35 billion in national sales, according to Trudy Garfunkel, author of "The Kosher Companion," and profit are climbing at a rate of 15 percent annually.

In her new book, Garfunkel attributes the rise to the popularity of kosher food among non-Jews, who equate a hechsher with the Good Housekeeping seal of approval or who keep kosher as a matter of Muslim observance.

Seventh-day Adventists, who are predominantly vegetarian, and others who avoid animal products also look to the kosher seal as a sign that their diets are healthy as well as godly.

Such stores as San Francisco's Israel Kosher Meat and Tel Aviv Strictly Kosher Market, San Jose's Willow Glen Market, Oakland Kosher Foods and the new Red Ox in Walnut Creek provide offerings from predominantly Jewish manufacturers. Today, however, mainstream grocers have broadened the market by carrying kosher products of mainstream manufacturers such as Contadina and Coors, says Robert Sosnick of the kosher distributor, J. Sosnick & Son.

Such brands, says Sosnick, are not necessarily shelved in the kosher section of the supermarket. Grocers tend to display non-Jewish kosher foods, like pasta sauce and beer, among the other sauces and beers while the store's kosher section continues to stock Jewish products such as matzot and Shabbat candles.

Another factor behind the growth is that Jewish tastes have changed, according to Sosnick. Kosher manufacturers are adding taco and pizza lines to the repertoire of gefilte fish and borscht.

"Chopped liver," he says, "is almost a non-seller."

Among the larger chains, Lucky Stores Inc. executives say more than half their 181 stores carry a standard kosher selection of 57 items, but in recent years some Northern California Lucky stores have added up to 146 additional items to the shelves.

About 20 Bay Area Safeway stores recently have filled out customer wish lists and padded kosher sections — executives declined to specify how much — in areas with growing Jewish communities.

Spokespersons of both chains say that a combination of available shelf space, customer requests and past sales statistics dictate which kosher items and how much of them are stocked.

"You don't need too many consumers to get a good [kosher] selection. Jewish people are vocal and they ask the store managers for the merchandise," Sosnick says.

As grocery chains expand and advertise aggressively, they've forced smaller purveyors to carve their niche in different ways. Sometimes a well-stocked kosher section or a good pastry chef can carry a smaller market's reputation with customers, who will stick around to shop for mainstays.

Whether the kosher selection is profitable is not as important to some retailers, like David Bennett, a co-owner of Molly Stone's Markets, who is willing to take a loss on his expanded kosher section to get customers into the store.

Bennett said if his Jewish clients come in for a bagel dog or a fresh kosher veal roast, they are more likely to shop in the rest of the market for other goods.

Mollie Stone's Jewish neighbors first approached Bennett about adding a kosher food section in 1990, when his franchise bought the Palo Alto building on California Avenue. Bennett was enthusiastic but discovered the task wouldn't be easy.

His bid for kosher certification of an in-store butcher operation took a couple of years to obtain. And many of the products requested by the neighbors are not carried by West Coast distributors.

After several years of research and complex ordering and shipping arrangements, Bennett slowly began to fill 2,000 square feet of his 23,000-square-foot market with kosher and kosher-style foods. Other Bay Area Mollie Stone's have followed suit.

Standing between a store display of 40 varieties of cryovac-packed smoked fish and a steaming pot of matzah-ball soup at the end of the salad bar, Bennett claims, "I want to be the model and world leader in kosher food programs. I consider it a challenge."

And regular Jewish customers have picked up on that.

On a recent Friday, Rabbi Ari Cartun of Palo Alto's Congregation Etz Chayim pushed a cart down Mollie Stone's aisles looking for an old favorite — Pita King pita bread. When his search turned up for naught, Cartun hailed Bennett, who called on the manager, who ran off with a vow to "call the Pita King himself."

Bennett says Friday shoppers pack the store's kosher sections and shmooze over the merchandise or the latest Jewish community gossip.

"Customers get such a kick out of it. People run into their friends and reminisce about merchandise they haven't seen since they were kids."

Mollie Stone's may well be the Bay Area's kosher leader, though Bennett has noticed that other independents in the Piedmont area and throughout the Peninsula also have expanded or added kosher sections.

Andronico's markets on Irving Street in San Francisco and Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, smaller chain groceries with more than 200 different kosher items, have one of the Bay Area's best year-round kosher sections after Mollie Stone's.

And though area Trader Joe's stores do not have a kosher section of traditional Jewish foods, most carry up to 189 kosher health foods throughout the store, according to Steve Schafer, captain of the San Francisco Trader Joe's.

Trader Joe's buyers don't actively "target kosher products," Schafer adds. "It just so happens that a lot of great products are also kosher."

Customers, of course, ultimately will decide whether or not the new selections are here to stay. Some have noticed that the new choices have steeper prices. And many East Coast transplants have dropped many less-than-healthy traditional foods for more wholesome California diets — heavy on fresh fruits, vegetables and grains — without sacrificing kashrut.

"We used to eat this stuff," says Mollie Stone's shopper Julius Honig with his wife while pointing to the fresh-butchered kosher beef, "but we switched to that stuff." He pointed to Empire line chickens.

Though he was raised the son of a kosher butcher in New York, Honig, who lives in Los Altos, now prepares mostly vegetarian meals "for health reasons." Nevertheless, the Honigs say satisfying their occasional meat cravings at their local grocery is a great convenience.

Besides, they say, the grocer "is a nice guy."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.