Emanu-El offering low-cost matzah

After Passover matzah prices nearly shot through the roof in the Bay Area last year, Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco decided to get into the business.

But synagogue leaders say they are not looking to make a profit on their matzah; they simply want to offer a competitive price.

Passing along only a portion of the cost to advertise its program, Emanu-El will sell Streit's-brand matzah to the public at wholesale prices — $11.40 for a five-pound box and $2.25 for one pound, said synagogue director Gary Cohn.

Last year, prices for a five-pound box of Manischewitz matzah hovered around $14 in supermarkets but soared as high as $19.99 for the same quantity. Until now, Manischewitz has been the only domestic matzah offered by the area's sole kosher distributor, the South San Francisco-based J. Sosnick & Son.

Distributors buy products directly from manufacturers and sell them at wholesale prices to retailers. Robert Sosnick, secretary treasurer of J. Sosnick & Son, doesn't think his prices — which this year will be comparable to last year's — are exorbitant. He said he raised prices last year because of higher shipping costs.

The highest markups represented a 100-percent increase from 1996's $8 to $10 price for five pounds, however. The biblical bread of poverty had become more expensive here than anywhere else in the country.

"This is a short-term wake-up call," Cohn said of Emanu-El's program. "The result of what we do this year may enable a second vendor to come into the area and lower prices through competition.

"I think what we're doing is a mitzvah."

The synagogue is not the only one toeing in on J. Sosnick's kosher corner.

Emanu-El's matzah supplier, RexPacific of Hayward, is for the first time carrying a limited line of kosher-for-Passover foods. RexPacific, which specializes in Asian foods, has contracted with Lucky of Northern California to sell Streit's matzah and a handful of other Passover items for less than Manischewitz products, according to marketing manager Tom Bruun.

Bruun would not confirm a retail price for the matzah. He said the less-expensive Streit's products will be available in most Lucky stores that carry year-round kosher selections.

It would be premature to call RexPacific a serious competitor to J. Sosnick & Son, which offers an extensive line of kosher products and has long-established relationships with supermarket chains and kosher markets. But RexPacific is the only local distributor offering to place another choice on supermarket shelves.

If the distributor is successful with its Passover line, RexPacific vendor Jerry Miller says he will consider expanding the line to include a year-round selection of kosher foods.

"I'm sticking my neck out on this," Miller said. "There's not a [big] demand. I'm taking a lower [profit] margin. I'm helping Streit's [break into the Bay Area], and I'm trying to get a cheaper price in the market."

Nobody appreciated his efforts more than Jewish Family and Children's services of San Francisco, which has begun assembling some 1,000 charity Seder Sacks for low-income emigres, single-parent families and seniors.

JFCS office manager Flora Nufeld considered purchasing the Passover foodstuffs from Emanu-El. But she changed her mind after striking a deal for lower prices with J. Sosnick "to keep the peace. After all, we've done business all these years."

Initially, 10 synagogues had agreed to participate in the Emanu-El program. All but Congregation Beth El in Aptos have since pulled out, some citing constraints in terms of the space required to store the cumbersome boxes, and lack of staff to sell them.

Remembering last year's kvetching about matzah prices, Brian Shevelenko, an administrator at Conservative Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, didn't hesitate several weeks ago to sign up with Emanu-El.

"I was told by other people that these prices are better than what is available, so why not offer them the break?"

But the congregation decided not to participate because it couldn't meet Emanu-El's advance-order deadline, Shevelenko said.

One rabbi, who wished not to be named, said he didn't sign up because he believed the Emanu-El program could harm the only year-round kosher distributor.

If one observes kashrut, it's already difficult to get kosher food, the rabbi explained. Passover shopping constitutes 40 percent of yearly kosher sales. If shoppers defect by patronizing the Emanu-El program, it could put a wholesaler out of business, he said.

"An extra $4 per family, or a couple dollars a box, isn't enough of a reason to make things rough for a businessman who is active in the Jewish community. If that's what [Sosnick] needs to charge to stay in business, then we should support him."

Sosnick isn't sweating. Nevertheless, he says the Emanu-El program could send the wrong message to supermarkets and other stores that stock Passover foods. If the stores don't sell the stock, they won't bother to sell Passover foods next year, he said.

"They're going to look at [lost sales] with a bit of a jaundiced eye [and think], `Why should I bother?'"

In larger markets such as Los Angeles and New York, where there is greater demand for kosher food, retailers can afford to sell matzah below cost because they will recoup the cash in macaroon and horseradish sales, he explained.

"It's not the case up here. The storekeeper has to sell the merchandise" for a profit because other kosher proceeds will not compensate for below-cost matzah.

In addition to discount matzah, Congregation Emanu-El will offer discount macaroons for $3 for a 10-ounce can, gefilte fish at $3.50 for a 24-ounce jar, and horseradish for $1 for a 4-ounce jar.

The kosher-for-Passover goods will be available by advance order only, Cohn said.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.