Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kosher Food Costs Solutions from "America's Rabbi". Maybe Not as Simple as He Thinks

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, ("America's Rabbi" - his words, not mine. Really. See for yourself.) writes and speaks a lot. Perhaps too much. (To be honest, I'm not sure of the value of airing our dirty laundry in the Huffington Post, but you gotta pay the bills somehow, I guess.) You see, sometimes it becomes hard to keep up with an impossible publication schedule. So you - he - seems to write things that on paper or screen sound good, but don't make much sense.
To wit, Rabbi Boteach complained recently about the high cost of Jewish life and the fact that Jewish young men (and old men) are pigs. Aside from being two columns in one, Rabbi Boteach makes several assertions about potential ways to lower the costs of Jewish food which I find speculative, to say the least. He writes:

A national campaign should be launched to make Kosher food mainstream for Jew and non-Jew alike. Already studies show that approximately twenty percent of Americans buy food with kosher symbols because of the high food quality. Doubling that number would create an economy of scale which would vastly decrease the costs.
I wonder whether Rabbi Boteach has any knowledge of the kosher industry. "Make kosher food mainstream"? Has he ever heard of Cheerios, or Heinz Ketchup, or any of the other hundreds of thousands of products that boast kashrut supervision. Let's face it: the greatest difference in expense of kosher food comes essentially from meat, poultry and cheese. Does Rabbi Boteach seriously think that the American consumer will suddenly willingly pay significantly more for a piece of meat? And even if he did succeed in creating a real "national" kosher brand, it would still cost a great, great deal more than non-kosher meat, which does not require the shechitah, supervision, salting, watching - all the elements of kosher meat and poultry production that really do cost a lot of money. He continues:

The same applies to kosher restaurants. Imagine a national kosher restaurant chain that markets itself to the mainstream public, available everywhere, and accomplishing two important goals. First, the dramatic reduction of costs through millions more customers and second, achieving the widespread availability of kosher food so that kosher travelers need not starve. If, say, a national organic Kosher food chain would open, many non-Jews who currently avoid fast food because its unhealthy may well flock to it because of high food quality.

Here Rabbi Boteach plays into the worst of stereotypes, that kosher food is better because it's higher quality food. Baloney. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kosher french fries are still fattening. Kosher hamburgers will still clog your arteries. The fact that a restaurant is kosher has no relationship to its cleanliness, healthful food production, quality, or any other standard. (And if you've been in the back of any kosher fast-food joint, you'd know what I mean.) McDonalds is probably much, much cleaner.
But Rabbi Boteach assertion that a national food chain of kosher stores would lower costs also defies logic. Would these restaurants have hashgachah? Would they serve kosher meat? Would they close for Shabbat? Anyone in the restaurant business will tell you that Friday night is the most important restaurant night of the week. Imagine opening a business that must remain closed on the biggest money-making day each and every week, and you'll begin to understand why kosher restaurant food costs so much more. The owner doesn't get a cut in rent. He just has to make up his Shabbat losses throughout the rest of the week - no matter how big the chain might be. So as much as Rabbi Boteach wants us to believe that "nationalization" would save us money, I truly doubt it.
The only way to create national brands of kosher foods and restaurants is to have a sufficient market that demands it. Without the market forces, building businesses based on complaints and ideals will only lose investors a great deal of money.
One other thing: a national food market already does exist. There is a place with national kosher food chains that offer readily available kosher food, meat, cheese, wine - you name it. This place also boasts national kosher restaurant chains and smaller kosher stores, shops and eateries, open and available across the country.
We call it Israel.