SECAUCUS, New Jersey – Thousands of hungry food professionals packed into an expo center in New Jersey on Tuesday and Wednesday to sample everything from teriyaki shiitake humous to vegetarian shwarma, organic tea-flavored ice pops and spicy apple chicken sausage.
The offerings varied far and wide, but all had one thing in common: They were kosher.
Chefs, buyers, distributors, exporters, importers and media outlets arrived from all over the world for the Kosherfest trade show this week – more than 6,000 registered to attend – to make connections, ink deals and try new foods. There were more men in bekishes – the traditional hassidic coat – than in suits, and conversations were conducted in a smattering of Hebrew, English, Yiddish, Italian and Spanish.
Now in its 26th year, the two-day event is a cross between a professional trade show and the buffet line at your cousin’s bar mitzva, with all the familiar jockeying for position at the roast beef carving station. There was a keynote address, private rooms for business meetings, stations set up for ritual hand-washing and a daily minyan for Shaharit (morning prayer).
The more than 300 exhibitors ran the gamut from established national brands like Manischewitz, Empire and even StarKist, to newcomer niche brands including Burning Bush Kosher Hot Sauce and DeeBee’s organic tea-flavored ice pops – which won the award for best overall new product in 2014.
Other new product award winners included Greek-style honey yogurt from Karoun, truffle pâté from La Rusticella, “Srirachanaisse” from Mikee and spicy apple chicken sausage from Empire.
As always, Manischewitz – the New Jersey-based kosher food giant – was a sprawling presence at the event, with arguably the largest individual station. Alongside the boxes and boxes of matza, jars of gefilte fish and cans of chicken soup were its newer products: carrot cake macaroons (which won best new Passover product), garlic and rosemary matza-style squares, gluten-free brownie mixes and even its gingerbread-style Hanukka house building kit.
International companies had a strong presence at the event – wellknown brands as well as exporters looking for their first US distributors.
More than a dozen countries were represented – Italians offering bread sticks and pasta; companies from the Philippines selling arrowroot cookies; Costa Rica with packages of frozen corn or plantains; Argentina with wine and cheese and Australia with soy chocolate shakes and hemp flour.
But no country was better represented than Israel, with 13 individual companies or distributors set up at the Israel pavilion, organized by the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute, a partially government-sponsored venture.
Caroline Nave, manager of the institute’s food and beverage wing, said it helps the Israeli companies navigate the logistics of the event and invite specific business contacts to meet with them.
While Israeli companies are not required to go through the institute, “it’s very important, especially for a company coming for the first time, which doesn’t really know what’s going on, to come through us,” said Nave. While the 13 companies represent a slightly smaller number than in years past, Nave said the changing and unstable market means “it’s not a trend” but a fluctuation.
From Bamba to Bissli, Krembo, Sabra humous and Prigat juice, many of the Israeli companies are well established in the US market, while others are looking to find their first foothold.
Appearing at the show for the first time ever was Jerusalem’s own Marzipan bakery. The company was looking for US distributors to offer its iconic chocolate and cinnamon rugelach for sale in supermarkets.
Glenn Cohn, a representative of the almost 30-year-old company, said it intends to continue manufacturing the product in Israel and shipping it frozen to stores and supermarkets in the US.
“Many people who visit Israel are from the US” and have a strong connection to the product and the company, said Cohn.
He said they’d been “looking nationally and studying the markets” for a while, and have plans to “roll out different lines of the business” starting with the famed rugelach.
Visitors to the booth were eager at the prospect, with one woman recounting how she brings back cartons of the rugelach after visits to Israel, and cookbook author and pastry chef Paula Shoyer called the rugelach the best thing she tasted at the event.
It wasn’t just food represented at the event; label printing, credit- card processing, kitchen equipment, paper goods, environmental engineering, uniforms, food safety training and even Smokinlicious’s gourmet wood products were also on display.
Additional oddities included multi-colored chickpeas from Clic, edible Asian spoons by Edibles by Jack, salmon and trout franks from A&B Famous and sugar-free, gluten- free, organic spelt cookies from Aviv.
On Wednesday, a TV-style cooking competition was held between three top kosher chefs – Itta Werdiger- Roth from Brooklyn’s Mason & Mug restaurant, Katsuji Tanabe of Los Angeles’s Mexikosher and David Blum from Hartman’s Fine Kosher Foods. The competitors were handed mystery ingredients and competed for the $1,000 prize.
Over the past few years a variety of kosher-related events have cropped up around Kosherfest, as kosher professionals, cookbook authors and bloggers from around the US flock to the New York area for the event. On Monday, the Kosher Food Bloggers Conference held its third annual day of lectures, demonstrations and tastings, and that night was the second annual KosherFest social media dinner, held at the Streit’s matza building on the Lower East Side.