January 25, 2012
Can we afford kosher lettuce?
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“It’s a very specialized product, and it’s a very small market,” Bender said. The greenhouses are expensive, and he was hesitant to make such a significant up-front investment.
Vann and Asyag put him at ease, though. “They pretty much gave me the assurance that it would be a small operation and protected for price,” Bender said.
For the RCC, establishing a kosher lettuce monopoly wouldn’t be difficult. According to its Web site, the RCC certifies more than 50 kosher establishments in Los Angeles — restaurants, bakeries, caterers — along with nine kosher markets. Because any certified kosher product these businesses use has to be approved by the RCC, if Vann wanted to ensure that Bender Farms wouldn’t face competition, he could do so simply by declining to approve any other producer of fresh kosher produce.
Bender Farms grew mostly romaine lettuce, but also parsley, dill and cilantro.
“We were very successful with broccoli and cauliflower,” Bender said, listing two products Asyag doesn’t currently offer. But even if Bender Farms was offering bug-free kosher broccoli, its asking price was a non-starter. Last week, conventionally grown broccoli crowns were retailing at Glatt Mart for 69 cents a pound, which comes out to less than $2 a head. Bender Farms’ broccoli was priced at about $5.50 per head, wholesale.
“The end user loved us,” said Bender, adding that he, too, had received phone calls from satisfied customers. But in many cases, the RCC-certified kosher markets refused to pay his asking price.
Bender and Asyag’s working relationship dissolved quickly. According to Bender, Asyag asked for a too large a share of the profits from their joint venture.
For his part, Asyag said it was exactly the opposite. “Not only did he fail,” Asyag said of Bender, “he was trying to steal the business. Bottom line, he wanted this whole thing for himself.”
After splitting from Bender, Asyag started California Kosher Farms with another grower in 2008 and, despite the earlier assurances Bender said he’d gotten, began to compete with his former partner. Bender feels particularly burned by Vann’s decision to award RCC certification to Asyag’s produce.
“When Yossi left me, he [Vann] shouldn’t have allowed him to compete with us,” Bender said, “because it destroyed the business.”
But while Bender told a story of a business-killing price war, Asyag said that Bender’s business failed because he priced his produce at a level no consumer would be willing to pay. Even Vann knew as much, Asyag said.
“He [Bender] came to the market and wanted to sell a head of lettuce to the supermarket at $3.75,” Asyag said. “At that point, the rabbi told me there is no business.”
And while Asyag wouldn’t disclose his exact wholesale prices, he said today they are “less than half” of the $3.75 Bender wanted to charge in 2009.
At the retail level, Asyag said, “The prices are right; the prices are cheap. The lettuce is $6.50 [a head] in New York. In L.A., it’s $2.99 to $3.50 a head.”
Asyag said he hasn’t yet made money selling his lettuce, and it is possible that he has been pricing it below cost for the past four years in an effort to build market share. But that seems unlikely. Bender got out of the business in 2009; he sold Vann the truck he bought to deliver produce to Los Angeles each week; the greenhouses have been leased to a grower of organic and conventional herbs. Asyag, now the only grower supplying RCC-certified lettuce to Los Angeles, should have no reason to voluntarily take a loss on his product.
“You have to pray a lot.”
“In general, the council policy is always not to encourage monopolies,” Vann said last week while waiting at a car wash near the Calabasas Shul, the Orthodox synagogue in Calabasas Park where he has been the rabbi since 1995. “Sometimes you need to have assistance to get something off the ground, but, long-term, monopolies are not in the interests of the community.”
Vann even hinted at the possibility that certain developments — improved washing technology, for instance — could spur the RCC to make changes to its kosher program, even in ways that could go against the interest of the farm at times.
“He mentioned that,” Asyag said. And while some new machine might make bagged lettuce an RCC-worthy alternative to his lettuce, Asyag said what would really drive the RCC to change its policies would be if he were unable to provide a reliable supply of kosher, bug-free lettuce.
“Not having it on a weekly basis throws the market off,” Asyag said. Any week when his product isn’t available, the caterers and restaurant owners call Vann, asking him to let them wash the only other kind of romaine lettuce they are allowed to use — the bagged, triple-washed Ready Pac brand.
“What do you think the rabbi says?” Asyag said. “ ‘OK, I’ll let you wash it.’ ”
Even those calls sound pleasant, compared to the phone calls the certifying rabbis from the RCC and those who certify Asyag’s produce for Bodek have gotten in the event a bug is found. After all, unlike, say, non-kosher beef, which might look and taste exactly like kosher beef, a bug found in a bag of kosher lettuce is undeniable evidence.
“If the product is marked kosher, and people check it, and it’s not kosher, then they call,” Asyag said. “They call the rabbi and they give him hell.”
“You can tell afterward whether there’s bugs in it,” Vann said. “That’s why you have to pray a lot. You pray, you do a lot of homework, you do your best, and you ask God — help us. I encourage everybody to do that.”
Asyag hired a new Israeli grower to assist him in October 2011, his fourth in five years, and he’s optimistic about the future. The farm has had a 100 percent success rate in keeping the produce bug-free since I visited in November, and Asyag occasionally talks about possible avenues for the business to expand — like “kosher organic” lettuce or bringing kosher lettuce into mainstream supermarkets.
“My idea was to feed the Jewish people at effective prices,” Asyag said. Even so, he knows that the pressure — from businesses and individuals — on the rabbis who certify his product is intense.
“This is the last chance,” he said.