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Crashing The Kosher Party

Crashing The Kosher Party

If you were walking the blue-carpeted aisles of the Javits Convention Center this week, sampling the items at the 16th Kosherfest food and food service trade show, you noticed some familiar names. Empire. Osem. Gold’s. Jackie Mason — as in Jackie Mason’s Cheesecake.
And you also saw some relatively new names, like Lilly, Carol Ann, Rosie, Aunt Gussie and Steve’s Mom — women’s names.
And you saw many women — more than in past years — staffing the booths that hawked kosher products to an estimated 10,000 members of the wholesale and retail public, a record crowd for the two-day event. Many of the women were dressed in traditional haredi garb, with wigs and long dresses.
A growing number of women have entered the kosher food business over the last few years, and Kosherfest, which is coproduced by Diversified Business Communications and Menachem Lubinsky, president of Lubicom Marketing Consulting, is a visible sign of this change.
Many female entrepreneurs in the Orthodox community turn up at Kosherfest, Lubinsky said, because a once-a-year booth in a public setting takes less time away from their homes than business trips around the country, and is considered a more-modest way of networking with male clients than private meetings.
“There’s a lot of women here,” said Deborah Bennett, president of Dr. B’s Kosherlite Meals, which is run by her and her two daughters.
As she spoke, she competed with the cacophony from the TV cameras angling for interviews, vendors calling to potential customers, representatives from such lands as Australia, Canada, Brazil and Ireland, and a crush of people noshing on slices of deli at one counter, chunks of cheese at another, and haute cuisine like challah-flavored tortillas at a third.
“Women in business is not a new trend. Successful women in business is a new trend,” Bennett said. “Women in general are going into business — it’s a trend all over that has extended to the kosher market.”
“My husband,” she said, “is my biggest cheerleader.”
“I definitely see more” women at the trade fair, said Susan Herlands, president of My Mother’s Delicacies, a bakery in Scranton, Pa., that specializes in creative flavors for rugelach. As Herlands spoke, she handed out a raspberry rugelach.
My Mother’s Delicacies is named for Herlands’ Galicia-born grandmother, and the recipes are based on her grandmother’s, Herlands said. The firm, formed 16 years ago with a single baker, now has 60 employees and annual sales in the millions of dollars and tentative plans to be franchised, Herland said.
“Women want to be role models for their children,” Herland, the mother of three, said of the increase in women in the kosher food business. “Today it’s more acceptable than it used to be” for women in Orthodox circles to start their own business.
About 20 percent of the record 440 booths at this year’s Kosherfest represented businesses owned or operated by women, Lubinsky said. In the trade fair’s early years, he said, there were “very few.”
“The general trend among the Orthodox” — who run a disproportionate share of kosher firms — “has been for women to go outside [the home] to work,” Lubinsky said. “I noticed it in the last five years.”
Lubinsky and women working the Kosherfest booths offered several reasons for the phenomenon. A growing demand for kosher food. An increasing openness to women entering the workforce in the general community. The flexible hours inherent in owning one’s own business instead of working for someone else. The economic pressures of supporting large families in the Orthodox community. The traditional bent of women in the Jewish community to be involved with cooking and baking.
“Women tend to be very creative,” Lubinsky said.
“It’s only natural” that women, who usually have more kitchen training than men, go into a business that uses these skills, said Susan Houghi, who owns a Bayshore, L.I., bakery.
Houghi’s firm mirrored another trend in the kosher food business that was evident at Kosherfest. A growing number of kosher food manufacturers gear themselves to the health-conscious market, or have added low-carb, low-sugar, low-cholesterol items in the last few years. This includes some of the record 35 Israeli businesses at Kosherfest.
Deborah Bennett’s Dr. B’s Kosherlite Meals, a two-year-old business based in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, offers a line of baked goods and other items for the diet conscious.
Bennett is a nutritionist. “I ran a diet club for the last 20 years,” she said. She made her own food, in her own kitchen, for her clients. “It became more popular,” until she decided to make her culinary sideline into a full-fledged business. The number of foods under the aegis, manufactured by a local caterer, “went from very small to hundreds of products.”
Most of the women handing out samples at Kosherfest had similar stories. They made some item for friends. Everyone liked it. Eventually the single item grew into an extensive line of products made by a bakery.
Houghi said two of the three people who established her business are female.
While the Orthodox traditionally discouraged women from taking jobs that took them away from the family, besides such positions as teacher and secretary, “the trend is changing,” Houghi said. “Women are being more accepted in positions of decision making for the community.”
“I definitely see it in my own neighborhood,” said Tee Lieberman, a Borough Park resident who does sales for the year-old Lilly’s Home Style Bake Shop. “Times have changed. In Borough Park, women with grown kids and time on their hands want something to do.”

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