Kosher Club closes its doors

The sudden closure on Dec. 9 of Kosher Club, a warehouse-style kosher market on Pico Boulevard near La Brea Avenue, saddened but didn’t really surprise industry experts or the kosher consumers who had been shopping at the store since it opened in 1987.

“What we are finding is that, as part of this recession, people are spending less than they used to on food, and that is hurting the markets,” said Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, author of “Is it Kosher?” and rabbinic administrator of the Kosher Information Bureau.

Located slightly outside of the heavily Orthodox Pico-Robertson and Beverly-La Brea neighborhoods, Kosher Club couldn’t compete with larger markets in the centers of those neighborhoods, Eidlitz suggested.

Kosher Club owner Daryl Schwartz declined to comment or to reveal why the store closed with just a few days’ notice.

“Americans like one-stop shopping, so the larger stores are doing better,” Eidlitz said. “At one point, people appreciated the smaller markets, with personal service, but now people want a supermarket — the bigger, the better.”

Eidlitz said several mom-and-pop operations in the city and the San Fernando Valley have shut down in the last few years. While Kosher Club was a large market with many specialty items, it did not offer a full bakery or a lush produce section, and many customers reported that Kosher Club’s prices were high.

“It was worth the trip when you needed something special, but overall, it was not worth it because when you were buying basic things, it would just cost too much,” said Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a freelance writer who said she had cut her trips to Kosher Club from once a week to about once a month.

Cambridge Farms in Valley Village and Glatt Mart in Pico-Robertson, both owned by a group of five partners, also have seen receipts decline. Co-owner Meir Davidpour won’t say how much business has waned, but said they are feeling the crunch.

“People are buying their necessities, which are low-profit items like rice, oil, potatoes and basic meats — the cheaper stuff. They don’t reach for the much more expensive items, like the $35-a-pound cheese imported from France, which they used to buy,” Davidpour said.

More customers have asked for credit or for help, or have gone from two trips a week to one.

At 25,000 square feet, Cambridge Farms, opened in 2008, is the largest all-kosher super market in the West. Glatt Mart, opened in 2003, is less than half its size. Those markets have increased advertising, refocused on customer service and tried to offer low prices to ride out the recession, Davidpour said.

Davidpour said he has felt resentment from other stores, and said they even offered to include smaller stores in Glatt Mart’s purchasing power, so all the storeowners could benefit from Glatt Mart’s lower bulk prices.

Like Glatt Mart and Cambridge Farms, many of the kosher markets are now owned by Iranian-Jewish immigrants.

“When you immigrate to this country, there are certain steps you have to take, one by one. The people who were grocers 20 to 30 years ago are now doing something better; they’re at a higher step. We are still taking all those steps,” Davidpour said. “Grocery is very hard work. I work 75, 80 hours a week, and we’re five partners.”

Don Lubitz, who co-owns West Pico Foods, a wholesale distributor to kosher markets, said he, too, has seen that progression.

“When I came into this industry 30 years ago, there were a lot of stores owned by Holocaust survivors — Eastern Europeans and Russians. Slowly they sold to Persian owners, and Persians opened other stores,” said Lubitz, whose West Pico Foods co-owner, Elias Naghi, is an Iranian Jew.

Lubitz bought West Pico Foods in 1989 from Daryl Schwartz’s father, Mickey. The Schwartzes opened Kosher Club at the West Pico Foods warehouse in 1987.

Lubitz said immigrant populations — Iranian and Israeli — can account for much of the boom in Los Angeles’ kosher consumer base in the last few decades.

“These are very tough economic times — that is an understatement — but if you have the right customer service and the right items at the right price, you’ll exist,” Lubitz said.

Devotees swore by its superior wine collection, its personalized service, and a meat case renowned among kosher connoisseurs. Kosher Club had a large parking lot and the ease of just pulling into a spot, and its wide aisles and relatively thin crowds inside distinguished it from the more bazaar-like atmosphere of most other kosher markets.

Those benefits more than made up for the 10-minute drive from Pico-Robertson or La Brea, said Baruch Littman, a long time customer and friend of the owners who was at the store the day before it closed.

“This is home to me,” said Littman, who is vice president of development at the Jewish Community Foundation. “When I leave my house to go to a kosher market, I have never gone anywhere but here. Never. They have the best meat case in the entire city. Rosie is the best butcher in the entire city.”

Kosher club was also early to develop online shopping and home delivery.

Angel Soto, who has worked for the Schwartzes for 30 years, most recently driving the home-delivery truck, witnessed the volume of customers at other kosher markets and said he had been concerned about Kosher Club.

Soto, along with about a dozen other employees, were told of the closing just days before. Soto said customers already have offered him jobs, so he’s not worried about himself.