Afikomen jumps into marketing lower-cost matzah

Following the lead of a San Francisco synagogue, the East Bay's largest Judaica store is selling mass-produced matzah for the first time — and for no profit at $1.99 per pound.

"I think the cost of matzah is way too high around here," said Jerry Derblich, co-owner of Afikomen Jewish Books, Gifts & Art in Berkeley.

"I know a lot of people were complaining last year."

Afikomen's staff decided to sell the matzah after reading a front-page article in the Jewish Bulletin in late February, Derblich said.

The article announced San Francisco Congregation Emanu-El's decision to plunge into the matzah business for the first time and sell Streit's plain matzah at $2.25 for a 1-pound box, or $11.40 for a 5-pound package.

"We're jumping on the Emanu-El bandwagon," Derblich said on Friday of last week.

Afikomen and Emanu-El's price for Streit's is considerably lower than the cost of Manischewitz matzah, which has ranged from $3 to $4.50 per pound.

Manischewitz has been the only domestic matzah offered by the Bay Area's only year-round kosher distributor, J. Sosnick & Son, which is in South San Francisco.

Emanu-El and Afikomen's supplier, RexPacific in Hayward, is for the first time carrying a limited line of kosher-for-Passover foods as it tries to ease into the Bay Area kosher market.

In addition to its $1.99 1-pounder of Streit's plain matzah, Afikomen is selling a 5-pound package for $9.95.

"People have just been loving it," Derblich said. "They really appreciate it."

Although Afikomen and Emanu-El are new to the matzah business, they aren't the only ones marketing a less expensive matzah.

A few Bay Area kosher butcher-grocers are carrying an import from Israel called Holyland, which sells in the $2 range for a 1-pound box and less than $10 for a 5-pound package. Among them are Red Ox Kosher Meat & Deli in Walnut Creek, Willow Glen Kosher Market in San Jose and Oakland Kosher Food and Bagel Company.

Oakland Kosher Food also is selling Streit's — $2.49 for a 1-pound box, or $11.99 for a 5-pound package. And a 5-pound package of Streit's 1997 matzah — which Orthodox Jews would not consider kosher in 1998 — is selling for $8.99.

Although neither Afikomen nor Emanu-El is seeking profit, the gift store's price is somewhat lower than the synagogue's. Derblich said his store is selling it at invoice price. Emanu-El, however, wanted to cover the handling costs including the paperwork and credit-card charges, said Gary Cohn, its executive director.

Derblich admits he isn't selling the matzah for completely selfless reasons.

"We decided to make it a loss leader," he said. For retailers, that means forfeiting any profit on a basic product with the expectation that customers will buy other items and cheerfully remember the good deal.

Derblich hopes his matzah supply will entice customers into buying other products nearby in the display, such as chocolate-covered macaroons, raspberry meltaways and top-quality kosher wines.

Cohn was thrilled to hear that Emanu-El inspired Afikomen to sell a lower-priced matzah.

"It's great," he said. "The more accessible Judaism is to people, the better we'll be able to connect them with Jewish programming, worship and education."

By Monday, Emanu-El had sold more than 1,400 boxes.

Emanu-El's decision to jump into the matzah market hasn't been without controversy.

Robert Sosnick, secretary treasurer of J. Sosnick & Son, told the Bulletin in February that he resents the invasion into the market because he provides kosher food year-round and relies on Passover income to keep his business healthy.

Derblich, however, said he isn't upset with the Sosnick company per se.

"I don't have any beef with Sosnick," he said. "I don't know what they're paying."

Emanu-El, Afikomen, Oakland Kosher Food, Temple Beth El's preschool in Aptos, and some Lucky and Safeway stores are all buying their Streit's matzah through RexPacific.

Gary Freeman, co-owner of Oakland Kosher Food, said he doesn't mind that the nearby Afikomen decided to sell matzah.

"It's OK…I don't consider [it] competition. We have much more to offer," Freeman said.

Oakland Kosher Food, the sole kosher butcher and grocer in Alameda County, is selling six brands of plain matzah — with a wide range of prices — as well as fancier matzot like egg and whole wheat. Both Oakland Kosher Food and Afikomen also sell an expensive, handmade product known as shmurah matzah.

Though he isn't upset, Freeman doesn't understand why Derblich is selling the Streit's at no profit.

"He's not going to gain anything by selling it so cheap. People aren't going to drive to him to get that. It just doesn't make sense to me," Freeman said.

Oakland Kosher, which was located on Grand Avenue in Oakland for many years, is undergoing one major change itself this Passover. In January, the butcher-grocer moved to College Avenue near the Rockridge BART station.

Freeman had harsher words for Emanu-El for potentially hurting the kosher butcher-grocers in San Francisco.

"What they're trying to do is say, `We don't care about you and we aren't going to have our members buy from you. We don't need you anymore,'" Freeman said.

"I don't think synagogues should be involved."

Kosher markets have to survive year-round, he said, and Passover brings in more customers than any other time of year.

"This is our Christmas."