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Big-Box Orthodox: It's Kosher, but . . .

Chicago Grocers Bristle at Outsize Competition

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2005; Page A03


The sign in the window of the kosher Chinese restaurant looks forlorn. Hand-lettered and slightly faded from the strong winter sun, it is a plea to customers to remain steadfast against a powerful invader.

"Please patronize the real jewels of the community. The heimische owned groceries and restaurants," the sign reads. Above it, inside a thin circle is the word Jewel. A diagonal line runs through it, the international symbol of opposition.

Chayim Knobloch and his wife, Nurit, maneuver around Geulah Ravitch, 3, and her brother Betzalel, 6, in the candy aisle at Kol Tuv Kosher Foods. (Chris Walker -- Chicago Tribune Via AP)

Jewel is a well-established supermarket chain that caused no heartache and invited no wrath until a couple of months ago, when it suddenly bought a huge billboard on Chicago's North Side to announce the opening of a gleaming kosher food department at a nearby store.

To Jewel and its parent Albertsons, the move was a straightforward play for customers and profits.

To the family-owned kosher shops along Devon Avenue and in nearby Skokie, it was a threat and an affront.

"I've definitely lost a fairly significant percentage of business," said Chayim Knobloch, proprietor of Kol Tuv Kosher Foods, a store and deli located across the street from the billboard. "I've begun trimming expenses and staff."

Knobloch advertises his kosher grocery, a throwback with narrow aisles packed with goods from wine to tablecloths, as "The Heimische Store," invoking a Yiddish word that suggests home and a warm hearth. When it comes to prices, he says, he cannot win.

The struggle being played out in north Chicago is part of a larger play for Jewish shoppers -- and the growing ethnic food market -- nationwide. Large companies including Albertsons, Wal-Mart, Safeway and Costco are seeking competitive advantage in a crowded sales sector by catering to specialty audiences.

Roughly 18,000 supermarkets carry products prepared according to Orthodox Judaism's dietary code, fueling a market that has been growing by 12 to 15 percent for nearly a decade, according to Kosher Today, an industry trade paper.

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