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. 

Berries, Pizza and a Smile

I walked into Trader Joe’s last Sunday and spent $54 on a gallon of milk. Truth be told, it was the strawberries, frozen pizza, extra dog treats, new kind of low-fat cheese and that tempting bottle of Prosecco wine that drove up the bill — none of which I’d intended to buy, and all of which I’ll use … someday. In other words, on this trip, like so many others, I turned a big chunk of disposable income over to Trader Joe’s — and not to Ralphs, Vons or Albertsons.

From October 2003 to February 2004, workers at those three supermarket chains went out on strike to ensure affordable health care, as well as to protect their pensions and job security. It was the longest strike in the history of the supermarket industry, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Web site, and the first major strike of the 21st century. At the end of 141 days, estimates say that the Big Three chains lost more than $2 billion. And in addition to lost wages during the strike, the workers lost a great deal more, having agreed to a two-tier system that allowed stores to bring in new hires at significantly lower wages and benefits.

As we read about the increasingly heated fight brewing now between 65,000 workers and management at those same chains, where union members last month authorized another strike, we’re once again told that it’s all about keeping costs low to prepare for the influx of the big-box stores like Wal-Mart. But the greater threat to the Big Three might be the better service we get at smaller neighborhood haunts, many of them locally owned. My family’s buying habits changed dramatically — and enduringly — as a result of the last strike.

Before 2004, I was a regular Ralphs shopper. We spent as much as $600 to $700 per month there for food and other household supplies. Now, if we spend one-tenth of that per month at the Big Three combined, it’s unusual. That’s because I became comfortable dividing my shopping among places that serve the customer by providing goods efficiently and still at a good price.

This often means several stops during the week — at Trader Joe’s, where we can get most of our staples, and Western Kosher on Fairfax Avenue (great hummus!), Smart & Final (cleaning supplies), the Sunday Hollywood Farmer’s Market (fruit and vegetables) and Mayfair (my favorite salad dressing).

It’s not hard to get over the convenience of the big stores when you get much better service in the smaller venues. I find, too, that it’s often a matter of stopping for a quick drop-in while making my other rounds, without going out of my way.

The issue for me came down to dealing as much as possible with businesses that care. At Mayfair there was no strike because a vow was made from the start to respect the new contract, whatever it might bring. At Trader Joe’s, workers like their jobs because it’s a fun place to work and the company offers benefits and good salaries.

The Big Three are continuing to look for ways to cut costs on their workers’ backs. Not satisfied with the two-tier system they established with the last contract, the owners want to create a third tier, which would even further pinch new hires.

At my favorite Trader Joe’s the other day, the woman ringing me up noticed that I’d picked up some items from the display at the store entrance.

“I guess it’s working,” she said, with evident pride in her voice.

She’d come in at 6 a.m. to set up a strawberry and wine display, and it was clearing out quickly. The day before, she said, the same space had been occupied by basil plants. She was happy with the job and that it made a difference. It was good marketing, but also attractive and seasonal. I fell under her spell.

But there was more to it than that — her sense of the fun of it. I asked her how long she’d been working for the company, and when she told me 13 years, I asked for her take on what was happening with the Big Three; she looked chagrined.

“No comparison,” she said, shaking her head and not wanting to elaborate.

I’m carefully watching the progress in the supermarket negotiations, but I’ve already moved on. The last strike broke my loyalty to the chains and my heart. Many of the employees I’d gotten to know at Ralphs, which I’d patronized for years, left my neighborhood store during their months on the picket lines. Perhaps they couldn’t afford to wait it out, perhaps they found other employment. When the strike was over, I tried to talk with a few clerks in the checkout lines, but they were reticent — working hard to keep the long lines flowing. No eye contact, no time to make a connection. I understand their pain, and I do care, so I’m not boycotting entirely. I still root for the union workers, but the fact is, the ones I know are mostly gone. Those who stayed have always seemed unsettled, insecure — and I hope their lot improves.

In stores where employees are happy, people can be people, and everyone wins. Workers take a moment to ask or answer a question, to engage the customer. That extra second to stop and smile comes easier, and if it’s not too prolonged, even those waiting in lines don’t seem to mind.

The Talmud teaches that we should respect those who work for us, even at our own expense. It makes good business sense. Because that extra smile of satisfaction often leads to the extra dollar spent — on that bottle of wine that wasn’t needed in the first place.

The funny thing is, shopping around has proved not only pleasant, but also just as economical. Because I totaled it up the other day, just to see how much that gallon of milk really cost me. And when I looked at my month’s bills, two years later, even with the extras, even though my money has gone elsewhere, my family’s monthly bill hadn’t really changed.

Rob Eshman is on assignment.