On a Sunday morning at the end of June, a steady stream of customers at the new ShopRite on Route 22 in Union stopped at the kosher meat refrigerator to pick up steaks, hot dogs and hamburgers, London broil, or thinly sliced chicken cutlets.
When the store opened at the end of April, there was no kosher meat and by all accounts a limited amount of kosher food for sale.
Over the intervening weeks, ShopRite has been steadily adding kosher food, from bourekas and Bodek vegetables to Wacky Mac and hallah.
As Ben Hoffer of Springfield, the de facto liaison between the local Springfield Orthodox community and the grocery store, takes a visitor on a tour of the current offerings of kosher foods at the ShopRite, everyone from seafood manager Mike Turnage, to kosher food manager Menachem Baron, to store manager Brian Shebey stopped to greet him, giving him a hug or a handshake, reflecting the increasingly friendly relationship between ShopRite and the nearby Jewish community.
It’s a development both sides appreciate.
Last fall, Hoffer, an attorney, and his wife, Daniella, a digital marketing strategist at Bayer, spearheaded a letter-writing campaign asking for a wide array of kosher goods at the new grocery store.
Although they initially advocated for a full Kosher Experience — a kosher store-within-a-store found at some other ShopRites — Hoffer told NJJN at the time he would be satisfied with the kinds of kosher products found at the Livingston ShopRite. Both are owned by Village Super Market, Inc., a publicly owned company that is family run. It owns a total of 29 ShopRite stores, which all participate in Wakefern, a cooperative of 50 member stores that are owned and operated under the ShopRite banner.
A ShopRite spokesperson at the time promised an “extended kosher offering” at the new Union market.
The Hoffers were therefore surprised when they attended the grand opening to find what they described as “just a few shelves” of traditional kosher items.
“When I got there, I was so disappointed,” Ben Hoffer told NJJN. “It was gefilte fish and borscht and matza. It just fell short. The [kosher] section was even smaller than it had been in the Springfield store on Morris Avenue. Frankly, I think they underestimated the demand.”
Nor did the items for sale reflect the increasing sophistication of the kosher market, he said. “No one is buying these products because this isn’t what kosher consumers buy in 2014,” he said. “They need to put their 21st century hats on.”
While she objected to Hoffer’s description of the items, ShopRite spokesperson Santina Stankevich nonetheless acknowledged, “We may have underestimated the need for a wider array of kosher offerings.”
She added, “Village Super Market has owned and operated a ShopRite in Union since 1971 and in that time has developed a great relationship with the community. Based on that history and on communication with local organizations prior to opening the new store this spring, we implemented what we hoped would be a balanced mix of products and services to serve the varied needs of a diverse community.”
When Hoffer brought his disappointment to the store’s attention, its managers listened. In fact, Hoffer said, he was not prepared for the response.
“I figured they would promise me this and promise me that and yes me,” he said. But within two weeks — and with some help from Daniella, who took a trip to the Livingston ShopRite with the Union managers and later conducted a quick survey of the Springfield community to see which items from the Livingston store they would be most likely to buy — things started to change.
“They recognized that mistakes had been made and asked for our patience and cooperation,” said Ben Hoffer.
Stankevich said, “We understand that and have put every effort forth since the April opening to address this need with additional products in Dairy, Frozen, Seafood, Meat, and Grocery. We have close ties to Congregation Israel in nearby Springfield and they have been great in letting us know what items they would like included as a part of our continued expansion of our kosher offering.”
Over the past month or so, the overhaul has continued. A hallah and cake section for Shabbat can be found on Fridays; there’s kosher fish, mostly salmon, in the fish case; a kosher meat refrigerator is in another aisle, with selections changing with differing needs — Friday finds it filled with chicken and kugels and similar Shabbat favorites, while a Sunday morning visit revealed steaks, London broil, extra thin chicken cutlets, and the like.
A dairy refrigerator section was added as well, along with a freezer.
There are also plenty of more popular items like Prigat juices, Bissli snacks, baking chocolate, marshmallows, and bread crumbs.
“The only bad thing is that everything is all over the store,” said Daniela Weinberg of Springfield as she chose some meat from the kosher refrigerator. She’d prefer that the kosher foods be found in a distinct section, rather than in different sections and aisles.
Stankevich said there were no plans to change this set up “at this time.”
Nonetheless, Hoffer said of ShopRite, “I give them high grades for responsiveness.”