December 12, 2002
Two Firms Take Bite Out of ‘Dog’ Market
At Jeff's Gourmet Kosher Sausage Factory on Pico Boulevard, high school boys crowd the place, sinking their teeth into chicken-cilantro sausages and Moroccan sausages with olives and preserved lemons. The hot dogs at Jeff's are a far cry from the skinny pink Hebrew National ones that most people think of when they think hot dog, and because of this, the franks sell well, even to high school boys who aren't natural gourmets.
Jeff Rohatiner, who started Jeff's Gourmet in 1999, and Alain Cohen and Evelyn Baron of Neshama Gourmet Kosher Foods, are at the vanguard of a kosher sausage revolution in Los Angeles. Both companies were founded by people dissatisfied with the state of kosher sausages and wanted to turn a normally low-cost food item into a high-end treat.
Fortunately for them, they found the right city in which to do it. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, Los Angeles is the No. 1 hot dog-eating city in America, with more than 36.5 million pounds of hot dogs sold here every year.
According to the council, sausages -- or processed meat stuffed into casings -- have a long history and were even mentioned in Homer's "Odyssey" in the ninth century B.C.E. The term "hot dog" came into parlance in the United States in the late 19th century, when "dog wagons" sold sausages in buns at college dorms.
The name was a sarcastic reference to the origin of the meat, and hot dogs have since found it difficult to shake their bad rap. In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote in "The Jungle," his famous expose of the meat-packing industry, that the poisoned rats that fell into the sausage meat were "tidbits" compared with the other things in there.
Despite this, hot dogs have always sold well. They are cheap, easy to prepare and Americans eat 20 billion pounds of them annually.
Kosher hot dogs started going into mass production in 1928, when Isadore Pinckowitz, a Romanian meat peddler on Manhattan's Lower East Side, started distributing his kosher sausages to Waldbaums, a grocery store chain catering to Jewish households. Since then, many kosher hot dog manufacturers have sprung up, including the famous Hebrew National, whose franks are sold in many ballparks.
In kosher grocery stores around Los Angeles, the beef hot dogs sold come from three main suppliers: Rubashkins, which operates out of Iowa, and MealMart and International Glatt, both from New York.
Despite the fact that kosher hot dogs are believed to be healthier than their nonkosher counterparts, because of the restrictions about their contents, many kosher meat connoisseurs still believe that the majority of sausages are made of heavily flavored abattoir floor-droppings -- albeit kosher ones.
Looking at the Los Angeles market for hot dogs, Jeff's and Neshama saw a business opportunity.
"It was very disappointing to come to Los Angeles and find that basically what [kosher consumers] have a choice of is a hot dog, a few turkey breasts and very inferior quality salami," said Cohen, who moved to Los Angeles from Paris 21 years ago. "I wanted to remedy that and bring people gourmet quality and more choice."
"Nobody was being creative in the kosher meat business," Rohatiner said. "I was looking to bring new products in the sausage category, and provide [sausages made] with fresh herbs and spices and international flavors."
Both Jeff's and Neshama use only high-quality ingredients in their sausages. Neshama, which makes three varieties of sausage -- mild Italian, southwest style and breakfast -- uses low-fat, boneless chicken and turkey. It enhances them with nontraditional ingredients, such as apples, cranberries, walnuts and tomatillos.
Jeff's sausages have a high-profile outlet among the general public as well. They are featured at the All American Sausage Co. food kisok, which is located in the Grove at Farmers Market. Proprietor Marty Katz said his location means that shoppers who keep kosher no longer have to look longingly while other shoppers get a bite to eat in the food court.
For Jeff's beef sausages, Rohatiner uses chuck and shoulder meat -- "whole cuts of meat without any trim" -- to which he adds fruits and spices.
To make sausages, the meat is ground together with the flavorings and ice chips -- to prevent the mixture from becoming too hot and splitting the casings -- and then stuffed into cellulose or collagen casings. Nonkosher sausages are sometimes stuffed into pork casings that come from the animal's intestines.
Rohatiner said that the difference between a gourmet sausage and a regular hot dog is in the ingredients and the grind. Other sausage manufacturers "are not really putting a lot of effort into flavor. They are not bothering much with fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables, because sausages have a shorter shelf life when you start introducing those things," he said.
"If they want to use the parts of the animals that I never see [such as the lips or the heart], then they need to grind it very finely," Rohatiner continued. "A hot dog is ground up the finest, and almost anything can be hidden in it, and that is why it has such a bad rap."
"In gourmet sausages," Rohatiner explained, "the beef is ground larger than a hamburger grind. The larger the grind, the better the flavor, and we give the customer something that is much more flavorful."
But kosher hot dogs are about more than just sausages. "A lot of people think keeping kosher is total deprivation," said Baron of Neshama. "We're hoping that by developing high-quality, sophisticated kosher food, more Jews will feel comfortable in observing kashrut."
Jeff's Gourmet Sausage Factory is located at 8930 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles (310) 858-8590, www.jeffsgourmet.com. For more information on Neshama Gourmet Kosher Foods, visit www.neshama.us .