Call it the 11th Plague.
As food prices nationwide rise at a rapid clip — an expected 3.5 to 4.5 percent this year on top of a 4 percent increase last year — Jews are being hit with a double whammy because of Passover, when kosher food prices are generally higher anyway.
Matzah prices — fueled by skyrocketing wheat costs — are soaring, as is the cost of complete seder dinner packages. Beef prices are rising too — with the price of brisket up $4 a pound over last year in some places. And, so as not to lose customers, some area retailers are trimming their profit margins, shielding consumers somewhat from kosher-for-Passover sticker shock.
Still, this is shaping up to be the most expensive Passover in years.
Among those shocked by the jump in beef prices was Nina Sandler of Dix Hills, L.I., who said she bought brisket last year for $10.99 a pound. “I paid $12.99 a pound this year — $130 for 10 pounds of brisket — up $2 a pound, and I saw it for $14.99 in another store,” she said.
“I always felt that Passover prices were outrageous, and this year it has become even more so.”
Wheat, a staple of many Passover diets, is now selling at record levels thanks to shortages caused by drought, flooding and global wheat inventories that are reportedly expected to drop to their lowest level in 26 years. The U.S. wheat harvest is said to be the smallest in five years because many farmers switched from growing wheat to growing corn after President George W. Bush touted the biofuel ethanol (which is made from corn) in his State of the Union address two years ago. At that time, 1.6 billion bushels of corn went into ethanol; this year, the figure is double that, which has nearly tripled corn prices.
Higher wheat costs and the flour that comes from it are reflected in the cost of shmurah matzah, which is watched from the time it is harvested to ensure it does not come into contact with water; regular matzah is watched from the time the wheat is ground.
Menachem Lubinsky, the head of Lubicom, the kosher food industry’s trade and marketing group, said that five or six years ago shmurah matzah cost $10 a pound. This year, he said, he has seen it sell for from between $18.50 and $20.50.
The increased cost of matzah — used in everything from matzah brei to matzah stuffing, matzah balls, matzah farfel and mandelbread — is just one of the reasons cited by New York area kosher butchers and supermarket owners for the higher cost of prepared seder family dinners. Price increases range from $10 to $50 per dinner for 12-14 people.
Woodbury Kosher Meats in Hicksville, L.I., increased the price of its complete chicken, brisket or turkey dinners for up to 14 persons to $249 (including tax) from $199 last year, according to Jerry Feldwood, the owner.
“We’ve never gone up in price like this,” he said. “In fact, a lady just came in with our menu from 10 years ago and the prices had not gone up that much. In this one year, prices went up more than they have in the last 10 years combined.”
He pointed out that there is now a fuel surcharge tacked on to the delivery charge each time he gets an order of beef.
A few miles from Hicksville, Plainview Kosher Food Emporium is selling a chicken dinner for up to 14 persons for $240, up by $10 from last year.
“We’re trying to keep prices down,” explained Laurence Goldstein, the owner. “I’ve seen prices range from $209 to $269 for the same basic meal.”
Asked why the wide fluctuation, Goldstein said: “Every neighborhood is different. Wholesale prices have gone up at least 20 percent. … I know you have to go up a little bit but we’re trying to keep our customers.”
He pointed out that if customers bought the items on his dinner package separately, they would pay substantially more.
“This is the most cost-effective and easiest way to do it,” Goldstein said.
Bleemy Spiro, the owner of Brach’s Supermarket of Queens in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, said she too is “cutting down on our profit margin” and increasing by $20 the cost of a family dinner. She said her store’s turkey dinner for 10, which includes dessert, matzah and grape juice, is $269.
A number of stores have not raised prices for their prepared dinners.
In Rego Park, Tov Caterers is charging the same $165 he charged last year for a chicken dinner for 8 to 10 people.
“We’re absorbing the price increases,” said Heshie Lazar, the owner. “The dinner includes appetizers and soup, chicken and side dishes. If bought individually it would cost more.”
The cost of seder dinner prices are also being held at Eretz on the Upper West Side. A chicken dinner for 10 costs $36 per person and the brisket dinner with mushroom and onion costs $45 per person, according to Yishay Gamzulatova, the manager.
“And we didn’t raise the price for shmurah matzah either,” he said. “We’re selling it for $16. That’s the best price in town.”
In Brooklyn, Samuel Genuth, the owner of Meal Mart on Avenue M in Flatbush, said his store has seen a 25 percent increase in some wholesale prices, but that he is able to raise his prices only so much.
“A raw chicken costs me $1.65 a pound and I sell a barbecue chicken for $6.99 a pound because you lose half of it in the cooking,” Genuth said. “I can’t go up in price. I’m embarrassed to charge more.”
He said he increased the price of his brisket and turkey only $1, explaining, “You can’t go up more. You can’t be smart, because you lose customers.”
David Perlow, the owner of Sammy’s Kosher Meat Market of Northern Westchester in Bedford Hills, said there is such price fluctuation before the holiday that he is unable to post his prices far enough in advance to offer complete dinners.
“I never know the prices,” he said. “This week Empire chicken came in and the price was up 10 cents a pound.”
Perlow said many people who had considered going out to dinner for Passover or having the meal catered have now told him that they have been quoted a price of $40 per person.
“So they come here and buy by the pound,” he said. “The package deals don’t seem to be great deals anymore.”
In addition, Perlow said he is telling his customers to buy their chickens now and freeze them rather than to wait until the eve of the holiday and risk not being able to get chickens. He said that happened two years ago when he ran out because the distributor had exhausted his supply.
“So when customers say they want to place an order for two days before the holiday, I say I can’t do it,” he said. “If [the distributor] doesn’t have it, I don’t have it. People say I ran out, but we didn’t have any because there wasn’t any. So I don’t want to promise chicken or turkey I’m not going to have. … After 17 years, I thought I had it figured out. But they have taken the fun out of this business.”
Consumers may also find the cost of Israeli products considerably higher now as the price of those goods begins to reflect the value of the plunging dollar, according to Christophe Hervieu, vice president of Osem U.S.A.
“Since last summer, there has been a 25 percent increase in the value of the [Israeli] shekel,” he said “Prices will vary by product, but there will be a significant increase.”
He said that because prices for Osem’s Passover products were set in the second half of last year, they do not reflect that increase. Non-Passover products, however, do reflect some of that increase. But Hervieu said the full 25 percent increase would eventually be reflected in the price.
“Price increases are not instantaneous,” he pointed out. “You can’t raise prices every week.”
At Commack Kosher in Commack, L.I., Brain Yarmeisch said his price too has not increased this year for a chicken or turkey dinner for 12 — $189.95, plus tax.
“We ate the increase so that people will have something affordable; otherwise some people may not have a seder,” he said, adding that the wholesale increases he paid were on average more than 15 percent.
“People are shopping price now more than ever before,” he added. “People now ask how much a hot dog is. In the past, they would just say they would like two and throw down a $20.”
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