On Kosher Megastores and Jewish Megatrends

August 11, 2008

Let’s be honest, we have some serious issues facing us as a Jewish people. Intermarriage rates are skyrocketing, Jewish philanthropy is struggling to adapt new challenges and corruption in Israel threatens to diminish our opinion of the success of political Zionism. Oh, and not to mention the dramas related to conversions and agriprocessors.  But tucked in one corner of the Jewish world there is discussion about what appears to be something dreadful about to occur to the Jewish community in Brooklyn – the opening of a high-end Kosher food megastore.

Really?   I mean, is it really that bad?

While I sometimes have sticker shock at the prices of gourmet items at Whole Foods and other high-end supermarkets, I only have myself to blame when I pay those prices. And deep down, I know that I can get high quality food at my regular grocery stores and neighborhood delis as well. But you know what? At Whole Foods, they make their food look so…well…good.  So good that I have to remind myself that just because it looks good doesn’t make it healthy. And just because it is displayed in the right lighting doesn’t make it low fat.  I know all that – but I still can’t help but occasionally stop in and pick up a bag of groceries that may cost a little more than I want to pay, but are exactly what I want to have at the exact time I decide I want to have them. And that look good.

So back to the opening of the new kosher megastore in Brooklyn. In many ways, I can understand the feelings of those who lament the opening of one more big store crowding out the smaller stores that have been around for a long time. And I also bristle at use of the word “schlocky” that the owner of the new store uses to describe the smaller stores and delis (perhaps “quaint” would have been a better word). But there is nothing stopping the people who want to shop at those smaller stores from continuing to shop at them, and even if those stores struggle at first, they ultimately may find that they are challenged to become more responsive to the changing tastes of their customer.  These small stores may find that they are going to be just fine without adapting to new approaches of stocking, new food displays and new sales strategies, but maybe they will be even better if they do adapt. And even though there may be a lot of history in some of these small stores, there may not be much of a future if they are not mindful of the changes and challenges they face.

That isn’t something to lament, it is something to understand.

And understanding this little microcosm of our Jewish world can help us understand the challenges we are facing elsewhere in our Jewish community. We need to understand how Amercian Jews embrace their Judaism – many want the megastore buffet of well-lighted, well-packaged Jewish experiences. Some want to get their Judaism at the storied (and sometimes quaint) places filled with Jewish pasts. We might disagree about how we want our Jewish experiences, but the important thing is that we want them in the first place. And while we don’t need to adapt certain core aspects and beliefs of Jewish life to meet changing tastes, we do need to have our Jewish institutions adapt to the ways Jews encounter those core aspects and beliefs. Just like the small stores and delis in Midwood, Brooklyn, the synagogues and Jewish organizations of America will need to adapt in order to survive, or alternatively be prepared to meet the challenge of maintaining relevance in an environment increasingly competitive for peoples Jewish attentions.

So perhaps the opening of a new kosher megastore in Brooklyn isn’t the worst of the challenges we face as a Jewish people. But it does remind us of the need to meet the challenge we do face – creating the types of Jewish experiences that keep people coming back for more. And there is nothing schlocky about that.


One comment

  1. I don’t really see this as a problem at all. If you compare it to the coffee industry, this Kosher Superstore might actually be a good thing for the mom and pops.

    Starbucks set the coffee scene in the U.S. The market barely existed before they came in. People barely even knew what a “cappuccino” was. And a latte was barely even a part of the English language. Look at us today. Half (if not more) of the American population is addicted to buying their coffee daily. Teenagers drink it before high school, and coffee shops are the new middle school hangout. Half of the people you know probably own their very own cappuccino machine.

    Starbucks actually believes they HELP the mom and pops, and I believe them … especially now that my neighborhood Starbucks, in the heart of Virginia Highlands, is CLOSED because of competition coming from Aurora, San Francisco Coffee and … that other place (can’t remember the name).

    The mom and pops will always be able to reach their customers a little better than the Superstores. Just like you’re enjoying spending your extra cash at Whole Foods, someone else will enjoy supporting a family business. Maybe it’s out of the goodness of their hearts, or maybe it’s because the roast beef tastes THAT much better. Or maybe the mom and pops can pay a little more attention to their customers’ wants and needs.

    Making people know you care is what matters most these days. You like Whole Foods because they’re good at making you believe they care about your health.

    So, in my opinion, this Kosher superstore might kill the mediocre competition, but it will only help the others. As long as it succeeds, it will educate the rest of NY as to why they should shop Kosher. And it wouldn’t surprise me if through the years more mom and pops keep popping up.

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