Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ethnic Foods Memo: Matzo Shortage at San Francisco Bay Area Supermarkets For Passover Has Area's Jewish Consumers Fuming and Grocers' Searching

You can see the displeasure in shoppers' eyes and on their faces in the aisles of San Francisco Bay Area supermarkets, store managers and clerks tell us.

Also, the region's online food-oriented message boards and blogs are full of comments and requests on the topic.

And, Bay Area Supermarket managers are being inundated with phone calls from less-than-happy consumers, all in search of what normally is a grocery product in abundance in the region this time of year--but is near-impossible to find this year.

What's causing all this concern and consternation?

It's Passover and to the dismay of observant Bay Area Jews it's impossible to find that essential staple for the holiday observance--matzo.

The Jewish religious holiday of Passover began last Saturday night at sundown and runs until the end of this week.

Matzo, an unleavened bread, is an essential food for Passover. Further, not just any old matzo will do during Passover. The unleavened bread--marketed by kosher food companies such as Manischewitz, Straits and a couple others--eaten during the week-long religious observance of Passover must be certified by the proper rabbinical organization as "Kosher for Passover." Everyday matzo, even though it 's certified "kosher," won't do during Passover, according to Jewish dietary laws.

Enter the matzo shortage in the Bay Area.

On Saturday Night (April 19), the first night of Passover, Jews are required to eat only wheat-based matzo. Then, for the rest of Passover, they are required to eat matzo each day made from only four grains in addition to wheat: barley, oats, rye or spelt. No other grains are permitted.

Wheat tends to be the most popular matzo variety and normally even if a supermarket runs out of that variety for a couple days it still has plenty of the other four types of grain-based matzo.

Not this year though in the Bay Area. The stores are out of all of the grain-based matzo varieties.

Safeway Stores, Inc., the region's number one supermarket chain; Lucky Stores, owned by Save Mart, Inc. and the region's number two chain; Mollie Stone, a popular multi-store independent in the Bay Area which among other things is known for its extensive selection of kosher foods, Andronico's, another multi-store upscale independent; Lunardi's, a family owned regional chain similar to Andronico's and Mollie Stone; and pretty much every other supermarket chain and independent in the Bay Area has shelves which are minus-matzo, and there's still four -to-five days of Passover left to go.

Even Whole Foods Market, which has nearly 25 stores in the Bay Area, as well as the numerous ethnic and specialty stores in the region, including a number that specialize in kosher foods, are out of the unleavened matzo bread.

Compounding the missing-in-action matzo-matter is the fact that Costco Wholesale, which is a popular food and grocery shopping destination in the region, decided not to carry matzo for passover in its numerous Bay Area stores this year.

Additionally, specialty grocer Trader Joe's which is another popular retailer in the area, took the year off nationwide from selling matzo in order to re-evaluate the category in its stores, according to Alison Mochizuki, a corporate spokesperson for the chain. Trader Joe's has 41 stores in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area.

None of the region's retailers' say they can put their finger on a single reason their stores are out of matzo, especially only three days into the Passover holiday.

All seem to agree though that demand is up and supply is down. Teena Massingill, a spokesperson for Safeway Stores, Inc., says the retailer ordered more matzo this year than last, but its stores are still out. She suggested because many other supermarkets in the Bay Area had little supply or ran out before Passover even began, Safeway's stores reported a run on the leavened bread beginning around the Friday before the holiday began.

The primary kosher foods distributor to most Bay Area supermarket chains and independents is the specialty and ethnic foods division of grocery wholesaler Certified Grocers, which has an office in the Bay Area city of Livermore and a warehouse and distribution center about 40 miles away in Stockton.

Certified's specialty and ethnic foods' distribution division provides kosher category food and grocery products to Lucky Stores, Andronico's, Mollie Stone, Raley's/Nob Hill and most other supermarket chains and independents in the Bay Area except Safeway, which buys kosher foods direct through its in-house Safeway Specialty Foods division.

Certified is essentially out of matzo, which means the retailers are out. In the U.S. Kosher for Passover grocery products are pre-ordered in advance by the stores from specialty and ethnic foods distributors or direct from the manufacturers. This is a long-standing industry practice.

Since the holiday only has a one week observance, that means grocery products which are strictly "Kosher for Passover" have a short shelf life. Distributors usually start bringing the special "Kosher for Passover" products into the stores about three weeks before the holiday observance begins. Most Jewish consumers know this and start stocking-up on products like Passover matzo as soon as they see it hit the stores' shelves.

When Passover is over, the "Kosher for Passover" products are either essentially sold out in the stores or picked up by the distributor. Although, less and less these days are distributors giving retailers any credits for returned Passover merchandise like used to be the common case.

As a result of the pre-ordering practice and the fact the Passover grocery products are only on the shelves for about four weeks (three weeks or so before the holiday and the week of the holiday), once a store runs out of an item like matzo--that's usually it.

Therefore, combine increased demand--many Jews celebrate Passover even though they aren't all that observant outside of the holiday--with the decreased supply--no matzo sales at Trader Joe's and Costco among other reasons--and you've got some very unhappy Jewish consumers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Matzo symbolizes what enslaved Jews were allowed to eat. It's even nicknamed "slaves bread." Its unleavened nature refers to a time when Jewish slaves had to flee Egypt in a hurry, and therefore didn't have time to bake the unleavened bread they took with them.

Passover is the single most observed Jewish holiday among the many that exist. It's also the most inclusive in that even those who rarely or even ever attend synagogue are likely to observe Passover. Many younger Jews who aren't regularly observant have increasingly been observing the religious holiday as a way to get more in touch culturally with their Jewish heritage, if not faith. It's estimated about 80% of the six million Jews who live in the U.S. observe Passover.

Food--and especially matzo--is central to the Passover holiday observation. So central in fact that many Bay Area Jews are driving to Southern California--or having relatives and friends there ship them matzo care packages by overnight mail. Many also are ordering matzo online--if they can still get it--asking and paying for next day delivery.

With four -to-five more days until passover ends, Bay Area supermarket retailers are feeling the heat. Many are searching far and wide for more matzo inventory. Safeway for example is trying to obtain some from its East Coast and other division distribution centers.

Meanwhile, online food forums like the one at http://www.craiglist.org/ and Bay Area-based food blogs are full of requests for matzo from consumers, as well as numerous comments and questions as to what has caused the 2008 matzo shortage in the Bay Area.

There will be lessons learned and spreadsheets studied by the region's supermarket buyers once this week is over and Passover ends. You can bet your matzo (if you can find any) on that.

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