Sheryl Krok often drives from Irvine to Los Angeles on business for her cleaning products line. But before the South African immigrant returns home, Krok makes a kosher pit stop, buying a month's supply of chicken to feed her carnivorous family of five.
"Because, hello! Irvine doesn't know there are kosher Jews down here," said Krok, who would be happy to give up bulk buying.
Awareness about the county's Jewish population is improving at a time when many in the community are moving toward greater religious observance, including dietary restrictions often scorned by previous generations. Up until now, though, the community has supported just a single retailer with rabbinic supervision, Tustin's O.C. Kosher Market.
Weekly grocery shopping and Pesach planning last month got a little easier for kosher consumers in Southern California, with the Albertsons supermarket chain rolling out a kosher line of packaged meat, poultry and salmon in 16 stores in the weeks before the holiday. They include Orange County locations in Mission Viejo, Seal Beach and two Irvine stores, as well as selected stores from Calabasas to Carlsbad.
"It's no great feat to have fresh meat in Fairfax or Borough Park," said Bill Pinkerson, owner of Nevada-based S'Better Farms, Albertsons' kosher meat distributor in Southern California and Las Vegas. A larger Jewish population can support a supermarket with in-house supervision of kashrut for the baker and butcher preparing fresh products. "What about the whole rest of the world?" he asked.
"Nobody has been successful delivering fresh meat, chicken and fish to modest-sized communities," said Pinkerson, who is gambling S'Better Farms can succeed after a two-year trial.
Making timely deliveries has proved a challenge to several national kosher meat distributors trying to gain footholds in suburban markets, said Menach Lubinsky, editor of Kosher Today, an industry trade publication. Even so, he said, supermarkets eager to keep customers in the store are catering to niche buyers with specialty foods, such as products for the lactose-intolerant, Muslims or organic consumers.
"They have made it possible for the kosher market," he said, which now proliferates with packaged dry goods and frozen items far beyond the mainstay Manischevitz brand.
S'Better Farms spent a longer-than-expected two years figuring out how to regionally distribute feather-free Chai brand chicken and its own glatt-certified beef and still maintain high standards. Ice-cooled trucks, lower temperatures in its Inglewood processing plant and specially sealed packaging are necessary for cuts delivered weekly to retain a 10-day shelf life in stores' refrigerated meat sections.
After scaling back testing to a single store in Rancho Bernardo, Pinkerson put off delivery to Albertsons until a full year elapsed without spoilage.
"Without all those steps, we can't get that 10 days," said Pinkerson, who also owns Royal Palate Foods, which prepares kosher food for hotels.
The Southern California grocery strike further delayed his strategy for a gradual rollout, but Albertsons' management was insistent on a pre-Passover introduction, he said.
Moe Boucher, the chain's ethnic meat merchandising manager, said "Albertsons wants to be known for neighborhood marketing."
After the holiday and depending on customer acceptance, he is considering stepping up deliveries to twice a week and expanding the kosher meat line from 12 items to 40.
About 60 of the chain's 300 Southern California stores are candidates for the line, he said. Pinkerson anticipates expanding to five new stores a month.
"I'm happy when kosher consumption is made easy and inexpensive," said Rabbi Joel Landau of Irvine's Beth Jacob Congregation, which urged its congregants by e-mail to support Albertsons' initiative.
"I'll go to whatever end it takes," added Zalman Marcus, rabbi of Mission Viejo's Chabad, "but to others, convenience plays a role." The Marcus household relies on cooperative bulk buying of glatt products in Los Angeles through an informal Chabad network. Glatt is a higher standard of kosher slaughter preferred by Orthodox Jews.
"A community this size, it's hard to demand that people shlep that far," Marcus said, referring to O.C. Kosher and its owner, Moshe Zelig. "There is no doubt he'll be harmed. It's obviously easier when you have no competition. Moshe needs to offer something different."
Zelig is worried about losing customers.
"If they find it 10 cents cheaper they go there," said Zelig, adding that his competitors' prepackaged meats are likely to cost more. O.C. Kosher's whole Chai chickens sell for $2.19 per pound; at Albertsons, Chai cut quarters were priced at $1.79 per pound.
Zelig predicted Albertsons' kosher push would last but a few weeks and fizzle after Passover. A previous introduction of fresh kosher products at Albertsons' Mission Viejo store also failed to catch on.
To accelerate customer acceptance and lessen reliance on Albertsons' marketing, Pinkerson hired David Niasoff to promote the S'Better line. Relocated recently from Brooklyn, he has ties to the Chabad community and is personally calling on clergy. His initial contacts elicited enthusiasm.
"It gave me the confidence we were on the right track," Niasoff said.