Dressed in a white shirt and black pants with tzitzit hanging out the sides, a red beard and a big black velvet yarmulke on his head, Rabbi Moshe Grawitzky looks like any other yeshiva rabbi. But he's not -- or at least, not anymore. As the founder of It's Delish, an innovative kosher food manufacturing and distribution company in North Hollywood, the ultra-Orthodox Grawitzky is as likely to be hobnobbing with the head buyers from all the large supermarket chains on the West Coast as he is with colleagues from Toras Emes, the school he used to teach at, while he establishes himself as a mover and shaker in the highly competitive world of retail food merchandising.
Grawitzky and his wife, Chana, started It's Delish 10 years ago with $100,000 in start-up capital borrowed from credit cards and free-loan societies. They began with a small line of kosher-for-Passover nuts, dried fruit, spices and candy, which they packaged in bags and then peddled to supermarkets. As simple as the idea sounds, there was nothing quite like it available in California.
"Back then, there was no availability of mainstream, normative kosher snacks," Grawitzky says. "In the supermarket's mindset, they were pitching toward what they thought made the most Jewish bang for their buck. They stocked a lot of gefilte fish and borscht --they must have thought that we took an IV of gefilte fish every morning for breakfast and had these lavish matzah ball parties all the time."
It's Delish was started with the aim of changing the price and the quality of kosher food. The Grawitzkys wanted to produce up- market products at downtown prices, and, in Grawitzky's words, "to enhance the joy of being a kosher consumer."
"There has always been some perception that if you were going to keep kosher, then you were going to be punished financially for that pleasure," Grawitzky says. "And I don't like being taxed to the hilt because I'm Jewish. So we decided that kosher is never going to be more expensive if we can help it. If anything, it was going to be less expensive."
"It has also been a lifelong goal to make Yiddishkayt and Jewish products more user-friendly," he adds. "So we wanted to create a contemporary type of upscale snack that would complement the consumer."
Unlike Jewish food companies such as Manishevitz, It's Delish offers consumers mainstream food products. And unlike Liebers and Paskez, sold only in kosher stores, It's Delish is sold in mainstream supermarkets. Colorful packaging and an upbeat logo give the products a bright, cheery and contemporary feel, and when compared with the equivalent products in the supermarket, it wins the price test. At Ralphs on Pico Boulevard, an It's Delish peach pie costs $3.99, compared to the Ralphs brand at $4.29. It's Delish basil retails at $3.49 for 2 ounces, McCormick basil is $6.19 for one-third of an ounce.
The Grawitzkys' dedication to bargain prices -- they even put their kosher-for-Passover products on sale before the holiday -- is not without drawbacks. "Sometimes that means we take a loss," Chana Grawitzky says. "When pine nuts went up to $12 a pound, we kept the same price, and we did not increase it, because our goal is to give great quality products at great prices."
Presently, the only thing inflating in It's Delish are its business operations. The company now offers over 300 products which are sold in several hundred supermarkets in California, Nevada, Oregon and Seattle. Products are packaged in a Valley warehouse complete with a $100,000 temperature-controlled cooler room to store the chocolates and candy, and then shipped on one of the It's Delish trucks to the supermarkets.
At times, It's Delish will do "kosher runs" at non-kosher manufacturing plants, so that they can produce lines of products that are traditionally not kosher (such as sour worm candies). They recently created a line of kosher-for-Passover soft drinks when kosher-for-Passover Coca-Cola was not available in California.
It's Delish has also created their own innovative packaging and storage for their products. It's Delish spices are sold in larger plastic bottles with wide openings, instead of the smaller glass containers that spices are traditionally sold in. In addition, the company builds its own shelving specially designed to hold It's Delish products to put in the supermarkets.
The company employs 40 people to do the packaging, the shipping and shelf stocking, with the Grawitzkys overseeing most of the product development and marketing.
"When we started it we thought it would be a mom-and-pop type of operation on a very small, localized scale," Grawitzky says. "A hobby so to speak. We never expected it to take over our lives."
He says he makes millions of dollars in sales every year, but not millions of dollars in profits. Although he credits the supermarket chains with being receptive to their dreams of quality kosher products, Grawitzky says that the financial reality of the supermarket business is brutal.
"There is a religion going on in the supermarkets now to save labor, so we send in our own workers to stock the shelves," he says. "We also need to pay slotting fees just to get the shelf space. We end up paying for the trucks, the space and the labor -- and this is the type of system where you can drive 300 miles to make a delivery, arrive five minutes late and be told to turn back and come back the next day."
"But the fierceness of the competition to get an inch of shelf space is the most sobering thought of all," he adds. Indeed, It's Delish does not even try and compete for shelf space in the spice or candy aisles, preferring instead to stock their products in a different part of the supermarket, where they can control the way that the products are presented to the consumer.
Product and display control are a big issue for Grawitzky, who recently turned down a distribution deal with the Wal-Mart chain. "It was an instant sale of millions of dollars," he says. "We turned them down because we thought that they would not do a nice enough job merchandising the product." He says that his displays have garnered praise from high-ranking supermarket executives across the country, and he is reluctant to give that up for the sake of a few more dollars.
It is not only kosher consumers that are enjoying It's Delish products. Terry O'Neil, director of public relations for Ralphs Grocery Co. in California, told The Journal that It's Delish is carried in many of the stores that serve a predominantly Spanish customer base, and it sells very well. "In a lot of the Hispanic stores that we have, it is selling better than in the Jewish neighborhoods," he said. "For us, it has been a very good product and a very good seller."
In the future, It's Delish plans to increase its product line and distribution centers and hopes to continue being ambassadors for kashrut. "I want people to realize that we serve people who are lawyers, doctors, actuaries and venture capitalists making multimillion dollar salaries," says Chana Grawitzky. "They might live in beautiful homes in Hancock Park of Palos Verdes, but they keep kosher."