Israeli jumps from slaughterhouse to veggie patch

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Eli Soglowek was born into the food industry. The head of Veggie Patch, a natural food company out of New Haven, was literally raised above the meat processing plant his family still owns in Israel.

Started by his father's parents, who moved from Germany to Palestine just before Hitler rose to power, the company provides 60 percent of Israel's meat supply.

"When kosher slaughtering was prohibited in Germany, my grandparents moved to Palestine with most of the family," Soglowek says. "They opened a small butcher shop, which is now the largest meat processing plant in Israel, employing 1,200 people." The company also manufactures a vegetarian line.

After a stint in the Israeli army, during which time he met wife Raina, who is from the United States, Soglowek decided to come to the United States to study at New York University's Business School. It was while at NYU that the idea for Veggie Patch was born.

"We did a study of how to make vegetarian foods more available to the mainstream. One conclusion was to refrigerate the product in the meat case, so people shopping for meat will have the opportunity to see veggie burgers.

"A lot of people say they want to eat healthier and reduce red-meat consumption and fat," says Soglowek, who admits that he still enjoys a steak now and again.

After graduation, Soglowek decided to start a company in the United States with a vegetarian flair, similar to what his family was doing in Israel. "We called real estate brokers from North Carolina to Massachusetts. Connecticut was surprisingly one of the most receptive for the idea," he recalls.

Working with the Department of Economic and Community Development, Soglowek was shown a number of possible sites for his plant. "I found them to be a great service — most states didn't have anything like this," he says.

Soglowek finally found the perfect site in New Haven, at the former home of Johnsonville Food, which manufactured sausage products.

After securing the building, Soglowek set about readying the factory to manufacture kosher products.

"They took out all of the equipment — we got an open space. We washed and steamed the whole building. Then, we contacted the Union of Orthodox Rabbis to get kosher certification.

"The building was vacant for almost a year and a half. Everything that had to do with the sausage plant was removed a long time ago. We made it clear that we needed a clean facility," continues Soglowek. He moved into the facility mid-1997, and began production and distribution last fall.

Veggie Patch has high hopes for its vegetarian products, such as burgers and hot dogs. The company, incorporated under the name FoodTech International, is at work improving recipes and developing new products.

It recently introduced a new line of pre-made dinners, following a trend that Soglowek calls the "buzz words" of the food industry: home meal replacement. The new Gourmet to Go line features vegetarian versions of such meals as sweet and sour chicken, pepper steak, and spaghetti and meat balls.

The products are distributed in Connecticut and the New York metropolitan area, with an eye toward nationwide distribution.

It's a far cry from the company's start in the basement of Soglowek's New York apartment. "We had very limited equipment but were very enthusiastic," he says.

Joined by James Chen, a food technologist, Soglowek began by creating recipes. "I didn't want to take recipes from the Israeli company. James had experience in soy proteins. He was my first employee and he moved with me from New York to New Haven."

As Soglowek and his wife settle into their new home in Stamford, Conn., and his company produces its 3,000-plus cases of product each week, Soglowek is happy. But he misses his family in Israel. "It's very hard to be in the States while my family is in Israel." As if to confirm his feelings, his mother calls during the interview to wish him a good Shabbat.

Still, he is glad to be starting a new company from the ground up. "It could be so easy to go back to Israel and be part of the big factory. But it's even more rewarding to know I've started it by myself. I'm keeping the tradition of my family, but doing it by myself. My parents are very supportive; without them, I couldn't do anything."

As more and more stores, from individuals shops to chains, start to carry Soglowek's products, the Veggie Patch name may be about to become a household word.

"By providing better products and making them available to the mainstream, I'm providing an opportunity to eat healthier," Soglowek says. "I believe in this."