Business could not have been better for Ilan Parente, owner of Solomon's Finest Kosher Meats, the only fresh meat supplier at this year's Kosherfest 2008, the international kosher food and food service trade show.
Held Nov. 11 and 12 at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in New Jersey, Kosherfest (photo, above) offered exciting new foods and kosher innovations, but also reflected the difficulties in the kosher industry brought about by the growing meat shortage.
With the recent collapse of Agriprocessors, the United States' leading meat supplier, many businesses came to Kosherfest to find solutions to their empty shelves.
One such restaurateur, Marc Epstein, came to Kosherfest to find more meat and cheese sources. Epstein, who owns Milk Street Café in Boston, was frustrated by the lack of options. "Choice is good, and there is no choice," he lamented. Epstein also attributed the problem to increased stringencies of the rabbinic establishment over the years.
Parente, on the other hand, who specializes in natural meat products, was reaping the rewards. Traveling to Kosherfest from Dawson, Minn., Parente had been inundated with buyers. They're under "tremendous pressure," he said, "trying to get Klal Yisrael as much meat as we can." Parente's company sells beef, bison, lamb and elk meat, uses no antibiotics on their animals and feeds them an "all-vegetarian diet."
Kosherfest was also celebrating its 20th anniversary at a new location in New Jersey (rather than the Javits Center in Manhattan, where it has been held in recent years). The change notwithstanding, regular exhibitors and attendees said it felt like business as usual.
Celebrity Jewish chef Jeff Nathan ("they call me the 'Jewish Emeril'"), who owns the kosher restaurant, Abigael's, on Broadway near Times Square in Manhattan, said Kosherfest 2008 seemed on par with previous years.
"Jersey is a little more laid back, that's why I live here," he said. Nathan did notice "a little leaning toward lighter and healthier" foods at the show, something he has been hoping to see more of. Some examples included a number of new gluten-free products, soy nut butter -- as a peanut butter substitute -- and many desserts advertised as "trans-fat free."
The event continued to be international in flavor, bringing together kosher food purveyors, caterers and distributors from more than 28 countries. Attendees traveled from as far away as Turkey, South Africa, Italy, Panama and Israel and as close to home as Los Angeles, Chicago and New Jersey.
Rabbi Gershon Finesilver, who attended the event on behalf of the London Beit Din (LBD), called the event "amazing." It was the London-based rabbi's first time staffing a Kosherfest booth and he likened the event (and the concomitant sampling) to "a very large Kiddush. You're nibbling all day."
In addition to educating American consumers about the LBD's role in supervising ingredients across Europe and Asia, the LBD was showing off its newest heksher, a slightly curvier design than it had before, with a hint of Asian flair. Finesilver said the new design had been in use for a couple of years, even if Americans might not have seen it.
Each year Kosherfest organizers hold a competition for the best new kosher-certified products. This year, Zelda's Sweet Shoppe of Skokie, Ill., took top honors with a "Southern Pecan Pie." Zelda's pie won the Best in Show award, the prize for best dessert, the prize for best packaging design and the prize for best snack food (for its caramel corn series).
After racking up so many awards, Zelda Neiman, the company's matriarch, couldn't help but stand at her booth beaming. "The show itself is amazing [as well as] a little overwhelming," she said.
Neiman, who keeps kosher, said she enjoyed seeing all of the kosher-certified products at the show. She had been planning to come to the event before as an attendee but it just never happened. Then, as a first-time exhibitor, her company won the top awards; "Nothing could be better," she said.
Other award-winners included Bella Baby organic frozen baby food, which won the prize for best new organic product; Kedem All Natural Premium grape juice for best new beverage, and Davida Aprons & Logo Programs, Inc. for best new food service product -- a baby bib that reads, "I'm not crying, I'm davening."
Exhibitor Linda Hausberg of Brentwood, who founded Linda's Gourmet Latkes, was attending Kosherfest for the first time. Hausberg called herself a "PTA mom" who started her business after watching her homemade latkes sell out at a fundraising event for her kids. She launched her product at Vicente Foods and now sells her frozen latkes at Whole Foods around the country.
Other highlights of this year's Kosherfest included a sushi-making competition that pitted sushi chefs from Eden Wok, Milk N' Honey NYC, Glatt A La Carte and Simply Sushi Café against one another for the title of best sushi. Simply Sushi of Monticello, N.Y., took the prize for best presentation, taste and creativity.
But for many, Kosherfest is all about sampling the food. From a rose-flavored fruit juice to spicy turkey jerky and tomato-basil risotto, and from mouth-watering Danish blue cheese and chocolate crepes to elk-meat sausages, the show was a kosher gastronome's dream come true. There was also a kosher Scotch by Speyside (for those who need a heksher on their liquor), freestanding vending machines with hot food available in minutes by Kosher Vending Industries, a kosher gelatin (courtesy of Kolatin), parve ice cream bonbons by Nestlé and nougat by Sally Williams (a South African favorite).
Rachelle Lewis of Beverly Hills might as well have been in heaven: "This is so exciting," she exclaimed; "It's fabulous!" Lewis works for Grocers Media, Inc., which markets new products with promotions inside supermarkets that use a barcode system. Though she's been to many different food shows, she said this year's Kosherfest was "one of the best."
As someone who keeps kosher, the event was particularly exciting -- "It's uplifting to see so many upscale [products]," Lewis said. She particularly enjoyed some fresh Israeli pita she had tried with falafel as well the Oxygen-brand sauces and glazes. "They have a bottled charosets that I couldn't imagine would taste good. But it does!"