It’s the sign of Kosherfest, the biggest annual kosher trade show: “No excessive product sampling is allowed. Attendees may exit the exhibit hall with one bag of samples only.”
Such a sign is not an uncommon sight at food shows, says Menachem Lubinsky, CEO of Lubicom Marketing and Kosherfest’s master of ceremonies. But it’s definitely a necessity at Kosherfest, a 26-year-old event that on Nov. 11 and 12 drew 330 exhibitors and 6,000 attendees, most of whom equipped themselves with that one bag on entering and commenced to forage and hoard.
Kosherfest is more than a kiddush on steroids, though. Held for the past 14 years at the Meadlowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, it’s also a massive melting pot, serving up the traditional, artisanal and industrial trends of contemporary kashrut.
The place feels like the mall at Christmastime — lots of shoving, no windows — and sounds like Tel Aviv’s Shuk HaCarmel, with its hawkers touting their goods in a mix of languages. There are attendees in jeans, and in long gabardine coats and several styles of sheitel. Around mincha time, folks could daven their mid-day prayers, or they could catch the end of a cooking demonstration of Katsuji Tanabe, a Top Chef contestant and the chef at Los Angeles’ MexiKosher restaurant.
And just like at a shuk, business gets done.
“I see my existing clients, I find new ones,” said Berel Sasoon, a red-bearded chasid who sells business solutions like credit card processing systems for Fidelity Payment Services, which has a booth at the show.
Of course, kosher is big bucks and getting bigger. It was an $11 billion market in 2006 and this year it’s projected to top $13 million, according to Lubicom. There are 12.4 million kosher consumers in the United States, and only about 6 million Jews, which means there’s room for still more growth. At Kosherfest, the numbers of exhibitors and visitors this year was about the same as last year, but that’s because the show is using up all of the center’s 80,000 square feet.
“We’re at capacity,” Lubinsky said. Or maybe slightly over. The manager of a nearby Walmart stormed into Kosherfest's press room around 2:30 p.m. to complain that, just like last year, Kosherfest overflow had taken over his parking lot and seeped into the fire lanes. They were towing.
Rabbi Ari Perten and Adina Rothman of Camp Ramah of the Berkshires visit the show in search of new foods for the camp’s dining hall, known as it is in all summer camps by its Hebrew name, cheder ochel. A pareve hot chocolate piqued their interest as a possible treat and a black truffle pasta tops their personal wish list.
The truffle paste in that pasta dish was one of this year’s award-winning products, taking honors for the best new dip, spread or salsa. Its maker, La Rustichella Truffles, is a family-owned Italian company that just received their kosher certification and rented a booth at Kosherfest to start making inroads with distributors and buyers.
This year, even excluding Israel, there were 30 international exhibitors, up from 23 last year, Lubinsky said.
Other award-winning new products had a small-scale or healthy vibe, like an organic extra virgin olive oil; NoMoo Cookie Company’s Ginger Slap and the winner in the best overall new product category, DeeBee’s Organic Tea Pops.
But the old, iconic brands placed, too. Empire Kosher Poultry’s spicy chicken apple sausage won for best new pre-cooked packaged meat. Manischewitz, which was bought this year by an affiliate of Bain Capital, won two categories, including, in the best new pasta, rice and grain contest, for their gluten-free matzo ball mix.
Gluten free and “natural” are big, Lubinsky said. Companies are following the broader market in their attempts to re-engineer products that have long list of artificial ingredients.
“They’re going to great lengths to see that happen,” he said, offering Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe’s “All Natural Caramel Corn Series” as an example. “It shows that they’re recognizing the changing demands of the consumer.”