Ralphs adds kosher mart

At 8 a.m. on Feb. 6, a sizable space inside the enormous and newly remodeled Ralphs at Third Street and La Brea Avenue became the Hancock Park-La Brea neighborhood’s newest kosher market. As the Los Angeles High School Marching Band played, speeches were made ,and checks were presented to neighborhood schools, including Fairfax High School, John Burroughs Middle School and Yeshiva Aharon Yaakov Ohr Eliyahu. Meanwhile, men in kippot and women in sheitels (wigs), berets and scarves appeared proud, excited — and a little anxious. 

The new Ralphs Kosher Experience is an expansive store within a store offering a kosher deli, bakery and butcher, all overseen 24 hours a day by a mashgiach (a person, usually an Orthodox Jew, who inspects and makes sure all laws of kashrut are followed). Early-morning Orthodox shoppers on this day were thrilled by the number of products offered, as well as the easily accessible parking and, especially, the store hours — but they also worried about smaller kosher markets in the neighborhood, where the owners know their customers well and freely recommend what’s best and offer special deals. 

“It’s what everyone’s talking about,” said Sandy Kalinsky, wife of Rabbi Alan Kalinsky of the Orthodox Union, who supervised the Ralphs project. She lives in the Pico-Union area where, she says, there are plenty of customers for larger and smaller stores. 

“At Western Kosher, they’re friendly and they talk to you, give you recipes,” said a woman named Naomi, who, like the other women, declined to give her last name. “But here, they’re open 24 hours.” 

To be sure, the neighborhood markets are pointing to their own strengths. At the back entrance to Western Kosher on Fairfax, store manager David Eskenazi, while supervising the morning deliveries, affirmed that his store’s focus, beyond “fantastic products” is “impeccable service.” After 25 years in business, they know their customers, he said, making sure they have what customers want and following up, even calling to let people know when things become available. Eskenazi hadn’t been to the new Ralphs but he graciously welcomed every new enterprise to the neighborhood. 

At La Brea Market, store manager Jackie Hasidim stood near a cash register, where hand-written notes to the community are posted and no ID is required for a busy mother who is a regular customer to cash a check. Hasidim noted the Ralphs might be a good source for prepared kosher foods, but for staples from carefully vetted suppliers, she hopes customers will continue to rely on her market. 

In both of these smaller stores, there is a sense of friendliness and community that the Ralphs will have to work hard to replicate. At the opening, Naomi’s friend Sara said she plans to try shopping at both the Ralphs and the smaller stores. Like others at the event, she expressed her hope that the Hancock Park and surrounding observant community is now large enough to support both kinds of businesses.

The footprint of this store, known as Ralphs 39, is 50,000 square feet. Since the store opened in 1961, it has been expanded and moved several times; this remodel added a complete second story. Moving food prep and offices upstairs  is what made room for the Kosher Experience, as well as for a large selection of organic and local produce, bulk organic grains, nonkosher prepared foods and a pharmacy. 

On opening day, the store could have been bigger yet. When the doors opened, people streamed in, and the aisles of the Kosher Experience were lined with special blue-and-white shopping bags containing free gifts of kosher apple juice, organic peanut butter and sweets. Coupons in each bag offered further discounts.  

Smartly dressed young women pushed strollers and shopping carts through the aisles while young husbands gathered into little groups to talk business or check out the variety of kosher wines. Older men accompanied their wives, as well, looking into the prices of the deli chicken and bakery cakes, and everyone exclaimed over the prepared sushi. Rabbis from local shuls who had served as advisers to the creators of the Kosher Experience, helped shoppers check for hekshers (certificates of kashrut) while pleased Ralphs employees looked on.  

This is not Ralphs’ first expanded kosher venture. The chain’s initial Kosher Experience is located in La Jolla, where it is doing quite well, according to its manager, Steve Wright. Employees, (called “members” at Ralphs) came up from the La Jolla Ralphs to help the newly trained kosher deli and bakery members. Wright said the Hancock Park store carries more product lines than does the La Jolla location. Hope Brown, who trains service deli members, said she is reading up on the rules of kashrut in anticipation of yet another Kosher Experience, on Ventura Boulevard in Encino, expected to open sometime this summer. 

Because food is prepared on-site at Kosher Experience, a mashgiach will be present to supervise food preparation 24 hours a day, at least for the first two weeks. After the store determines traffic flow, the deli, bakery and butcher may close at night. In the La Jolla store, they are closed from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. 

For Shabbat, the deli, bakery and butcher will close in winter at 1 p.m. on Friday and reopen at 6 a.m. on Sunday. In summer, closing time for Shabbat will be 2 p.m. The rest of the kosher area will remain open, and there is a good selection of challah and baked goods available for people who might not be shomer Shabbat but are looking for tasty additions to a traditional Shabbat meal.