Is the kosher market ripe for an artisanal cheddar cheese?
Foodie Mark Bodzin of Highland Park dreams of all kinds of food and wine — cheese in particular. However, he has a challenge — he is an observant Jew and the available kosher cheese generally does not meet his exacting personal standards.
So Bodzin has sought out companies to produce a high-quality kosher cheddar, finally settling on Shelburne Farms, a 1,400-acre working farm and nonprofit educational center in Shelburne, Vt., which already makes award-winning cheddar.
He started an on-line campaign on Kickstarter, which as of the evening of Feb. 17 had raised $4,903 of the $16,000 he must reach by March 26. If he raises the full amount, the company will do a day’s run of 600 pounds of cheddar to test the kosher market.
“The idea has been fomenting for a while,” said Bodzin, who now works in the Kosher Experience at the West Orange ShopRite. “I went to grad school to study marketing and distribution in the hope of importing kosher European wines to the States. But one thing led to another and instead I ended up in corporate America.”
A native of Rochester, NY, Bodzin has lived in Atlanta, Chicago, and Jerusalem, among other places, and came to New Jersey almost three years ago from Florida.
He previously was immersed in the corporate world, launching businesses for a group of investors, including the Trump Institute, which ran real estate seminars all over the country.
That career ultimately dried up, but it did provide him with a solid background easily transferable to the food industry.
In fact, it was a job in distribution for a kosher salami manufacturer that landed him his current job at ShopRite.
“One of the stores it distributed to was the ShopRite in Livingston,” recalled Bodzin. “I started to talk to the deli manager, and after a few minutes of conversation he hired me. I was later moved to West Orange.”
Bodzin said a look at kosher food industry trends convinced him the market was ready for good cheese.
“The kosher wine market has improved by leaps and bounds,” he said. “I’ve done some traveling and been exposed to good food, and one of the things I’ve felt was missing was a good kosher cheese.”
Traditional cheese is not kosher because the rennet containing enzymes used in its production often comes from calves’ stomachs.
However, his cheddar can be certified kosher, as well as halal for Muslims and be acceptable to vegans, because it will be made with microbacterial rennet containing no meat products. Orthodox kosher certification for Bodzin’s cheese would be handled by the Vaad Harabonim of Massachusetts.
Bodzin decided “to use the power of the Internet” to cover his startup costs.
“I could join Kickstarter and find out if there was enough demand in the kosher community without having to buy 600 pounds of cheddar,” he explained. “It was a much less risky proposal than the traditional methodology.”
Shelburne Farms is also “a good match,” said Bodzin. Not only had it been considering exploring the kosher market, but the company also had a good reputation among foodies for its humane treatment of animals, and as a local sustainable farm that doesn’t use chemicals in its products.
Bodzin is optimistic he will reach the $16,000 goal — he already had 10 percent just two days after launching on Feb. 10.
The cheese is relatively expensive at $18 a pound and those putting in their orders will not be seeing it soon. After the one-day run, the cheese has to age up to a year before it’s ready to ship. And with the ability to do only 600 pounds a day, Bodzin said consumers will not find it in the kosher section of their local supermarket.
However, if the demand is there, a second or third run is possible as is making a kosher run an annual or even biannual event. But Bodzin’s cheesy dreams are bigger than that.
“I’d love to do other cheeses, but to do that I’d have to go to other cheese manufacturers and convince them this is a serious venture,” said Bodzin. “I’d have to believe that it would be easier once I have other successes under my belt. I’d love to do a smoked blue cheese. A lot of the softer cheeses like mozzarella can be ready in a day. I’d love to do a cheese of the month.”