Albertsons now catering to kosher appetites in South Bay

Taking along an extra empty suitcase has become a way of life for many of the Bay Area’s observant Jews when they travel to a kosher metropolis such as Los Angeles.

“When I first came here 25 years ago, I used to drive down to L.A. every few months or fly to New York and bring $500 or $600 worth of meat back at a time,” said Rabbi Yosef Levin, director of Chabad of the Greater South Bay.

Those luggage-toting Jews can now downgrade to a carry-on. Or maybe, even leave the extra suitcase at home.

Last month, Albertsons in Los Altos opened a fully stocked kosher section in its store on Grant Road. The section now has multiple aisles, refrigerators and freezers, holding more than 2,000 products with the highest levels of kosher certification.

What’s happened here reflects a nationwide trend: Albertsons, one of the nation’s largest grocery chains, has dramatically expanded kosher aisles at hundreds of its supermarkets across the country. And the Idaho-based chain is just one of many companies around the country competing to get a lucrative slice of an approximately $9 billion kosher industry that is growing at a rate of 15 percent a year.

The new section in Los Altos is the result of a two-year wait, after Peninsula residents began lobbying Albertsons to open such a store.

At a meeting in December 2003, some 500 area residents showed up at a meeting with Albertsons management — only 30 or 40 were requested to form a focus group — to persuade them that the demand was there.

At that meeting, Yakov Yarmove, the corporate kosher category manager for Albertsons, told them it could possibly be two years before such a store opened. That meeting was followed by many more.

Jacqueline Bocian, a Los Altos mother of four, met regularly with local rebbetzin Rena Shochet, Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of Congregation Emek Beracha of Palo Alto, and Levin. They compiled data on where most of the Israelis in the South Bay live, where most of the Orthodox Jews live, and where most of the less observant Jews who might be interested in kosher food reside. They also analyzed traffic patterns.

“[Yarmove] said it would take two years, and he was right on the money,” Bocian said. “It seemed so long at that time.”

From Yarmove’s frequent visits to the area, he saw that Los Altos was a sort of Jewish epicenter because several Jewish schools are nearby, as well as the Orthodox community of Palo Alto.

“Also, it had the room for us to do this,” he said. “And that’s key, because if a store doesn’t have the room, it could negatively impact the non-kosher business.”

While Albertons ultimately decided not to install a kosher deli or butcher in the Los Altos store — at least not yet — Yarmove said he still had every intention of giving Jewish shoppers of the South Bay products they had never seen before.

“I wanted to wow the people,” he said.

He spoke of kosher Camembert and Brie, kosher pizza crust and kosher travel-meals that include a built-in heating device. The latter, patented by New Jersey-based La Briute, contains a flameless heater made of magnesium and iron that produces steam inside the box.

The selection of Israeli salads is so complete, he boasted, that the area’s Israelis are flocking to Albertsons to get a taste of home.

“Many of the Israelis are not observant but they just want items from Israel,” said Yarmove.

While the kinks are still being ironed out in terms of stocking the right amount of products, Peninsula families say that grocery shopping has become a pleasure.

“My life has changed enormously and that of most of my friends,” said Bocian. “Now we don’t need to go to five or six stores, which is really helpful when you have a lot of kids and a job.”

Noting that the Mollie Stone’s chain was the first to come to the rescue of the area’s kosher consumers, Levin, a father of 13, said that now he doesn’t have to keep his two freezers full.

Yarmove promised that Passover 2006 would bring such a plethora of products, that the display might even bring some Brooklynites out to Los Altos.

“We plan on taking it up even another notch, God willing,” he said. “They haven’t seen anything yet. We’ve had some growing pains, but once we get past that, we’ll be soaring with the eagles.”

Adam Goldman of the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."