As she pushed her shopping cart down the kosher meat aisle at Costco in Westbury, L.I., Ellen Glatt (yes, that is her real name) of Bellmore picked up packages of beef and chicken and looked at the price.
“They’re much less expensive than Kosher Meat Farm,” she said, referring to the recently closed kosher butcher in Wantagh, L.I.
“I think that’s what put him out of business — Costco and Shop Rite in Plainview,” Glatt said. “He was there 38 years and wanted to make it to 40, but he couldn’t hold out. He told me he tried to sell his business to another kosher butcher in the area but that it is having a hard time too. The neighborhood is changing.”
The closing of her kosher butcher is just another sign of the declining Jewish population in parts of Nassau County — especially the South Shore. Another sign, compounded by the lingering recession, is the large number of synagogues that have merged there in the last 10 years.
But it’s also a reflection of the kosher industry’s larger shift away from mom-and-pop operations.
Rabbi Israel Mayer Steinberg, a kosher supervisor for many establishments, said several other kosher butchers on Long Island have also closed in the last five years.
Among the other reasons cited for the demise of kosher butchers are the economic downturn and the need for people to cut back on expenses, a decline in meat sales by health-conscious consumers and competition from several supermarkets that have introduced kosher meat shelves.
The magnitude of the declining Jewish population in areas of Long Island is not yet known because the latest survey by UJA-Federation of New York is to be completed in May at the earliest. Its last study in 2002 found 90,000 Jews in Suffolk — down from 98,000 a decade earlier — and 221,500 Jews in Nassau, up from 203,000 persons in 1991.
Rami Bandari, the owner of the Kosher Emporium of Merrick, said his business is down by at least one-third since he bought it five years ago.
“It’s tough,” he said. “People go to supermarkets because they have better prices. And people are not spending that much on kosher or are only kosher for the holidays. It’s not like it used to be a few years ago.”
In addition, his store is facing stiff competition from kosher establishments in the Five Towns — a 20-minute drive away — where there is a wide variety of kosher food in stores and supermarkets.
Edward Mazur, vice president of Mazur’s Market Place in Little Neck, Queens, said kosher consumers are turning to supermarkets for their meat because “in a recession, people look to save wherever they can. … In today’s market, trust is not as important as prices.”
He said his 52-year-old family-owned store is facing stiff competition from two kosher butchers and a kosher supermarket in Great Neck that opened along with an influx of Orthodox Jews there.
Meanwhile, Mazur said, there are three synagogues near him but their numbers have dwindled significantly over the years.
“There are maybe 300 members between them,” he said, noting that Little Neck has witnessed a large influx of Asians.
On Nov. 16, he noted, the gourmet Fairway market is slated to open in nearby Douglaston, Queens, and it will also be selling kosher meat.
“It’s not going to help,” Mazur said when asked the expected impact on his business. “It will be centrally located and may even take away from [kosher stores on] Main Street in [Kew Gardens Hills] Queens because it will have parking. …
“So when they are opening more kosher avenues and not importing more Jews, they are just sharing the same basic kosher population. … The Jewish population is declining and the competition is growing. That’s a bad combination.”
In the late 1930s and early ‘40s, there were thousands of kosher butcher shops in the New York area — in some neighborhoods one on almost every block, according to Menachem Lubinsky, CEO of Lubicom Marketing and Consulting in Brooklyn, a company devoted to the kosher market.
“All of that is now history,” he said, “because changing demographics, lifestyle changes and the automobile lets people drive across county lines to places that have a variety of kosher food. The butcher stores on Long Island have hung in there longer than those in other communities.
“The fact that many of them survive today is really a miracle, considering all of the large kosher stores and supermarkets that bring in fresh meat.”
Rabbi Steinberg blamed the demise of kosher butcher shops on the introduction of kosher meat in supermarkets.
Asked what he foresees in the future, Rabbi Steinberg replied: “They are killing the butchers. Eventually if you want fresh meat, you won’t be able to get it. People who are used to going and getting what they want will have to just buy what they see.”
Lubinsky pointed out that there are still some fervently Orthodox and chasidic areas where butcher shops continue to thrive because of the particular slaughtering process used. Other butcher stores that are still around, he said, have “transformed themselves into supermarkets that still have a butcher, like Glatt Mart in Flatbush.”
The supermarkets, especially the giant box stores like Costco, are able to undercut a butcher store’s prices because of their large volume purchases, Lubinsky noted.
“Sometimes a store like Costco is able to almost dictate its price because the purveyors don’t want to lose it and are willing to live on smaller margins to retain the account,” he pointed out.
But buying from a store like Costco means buying meat that is pre-cut and pre-packaged, often in large quantities. Anna Kaplan of Great Neck said that because of the size of the package of chicken cutlets she was buying, she planned to freeze part of it.
“I come here for the kosher stuff,” she said. “They have wonderful prices on the Empire chickens.”
Daniel Sokolow of West Hempstead said he too shops at Costco because of the prices.
As he picked up a package of flanken, Sokolow remarked, “Flanken for $8.99 a pound is unusual in most places.”
Lauren, who declined to reveal her last name because she “doesn’t want to get into trouble with my kosher butcher,” said she shops at Costco often because the “quality is good” and the prices are generally lower than elsewhere.
However, when she picked up a package of chicken cutlets for $4.99 a pound, she said she pays $3.99 at her butcher. But upon closer examination, she noticed that Costco’s Empire chicken cutlets were marked “vegetarian fed,” which her butcher’s is not.
Larry Resnikoff, assistant general manager of the Costco in Westbury, said sales of kosher meat have doubled since the store first introduced it a little over a year ago. And last December, he said, the store made the bakery kosher.
Aimee Goldenberg of West Hempstead said that although she buys some kosher products at Costco, she still patronizes her kosher butcher.
“I support my kosher butcher because Costco does not have all of the different cuts of meat my butcher has,” she explained.
Her sister-in-law, Judy Azose, said she likes the kosher bakery at Costco but is upset that all of its products are dairy. And she said she too shops at her local butcher because it offers prepared food and deli items that Costco lacks.
Andrew Feldman, a partner at Woodbury Kosher in Hicksville, said the prepared food his butcher store sells represents a large part of his business. And he said he recently started e-mailing weekly coupons to his customers to make his fresh meat and chicken prices competitive with supermarkets.
“You have to be creative,” Feldman said. “Kosher meat is expensive. I send out coupons to get people in so that they will also buy other things.”
Mazur said competing with supermarkets is difficult because “they are open seven days a week and we are closed on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. In addition, we pay for kosher supervision, so we are getting the short end of the stick.”
Because supermarkets bring in sealed, pre-packaged kosher meat, they do not need additional on-site supervision.
“I don’t know what it will be like in five years, but in 10 or 15 years kosher butcher stores may go the way of the appetizing stores,” Mazur said.