WINNIPEG — There may not be local ritual slaughter going on, but observant Jews in Manitoba’s capital now have more choices for kosher meat than they’ve enjoyed in a long time.
Within the last couple of years, the Superstore, Sobeys and Price Choppers supermarkets serving Winnipeg’s south end and a Superstore in the north end have all introduced frozen kosher meat and chicken products, mainly from Toronto.
The plentiful new supply relieves a situation that had existed since fresh kosher slaughter came to an end here in the summer of 2006 and the city’s last kosher butcher shop closed its doors a couple of years later.
“It’s great to have some more options now,” said Faye Rosenberg-Cohen, planning director at the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, who keeps kosher herself.
“It’s almost ironic that our options in terms of kosher meat have actually increased since Bathurst and Omnitsky closed,” said kosher meat consumer Morris Bloom. “It’s nice to see that others picked up the slack.”
The Bathurst Street Market, which closed in 2006, was a north end kosher grocery store and restaurant operated by a shomer Shabbat family. It sold deli products as well as kosher meat imported from Toronto and Montreal. Omnitsky, Winnipeg’s last kosher butcher, lost its hechsher in 2006 and finally closed in 2008.
“In recognition of the growing cultural diversity in many Canadian neighbourhoods, Loblaw is proud to offer our customers a wide range of ethnic products, such as kosher meat,” Loblaw, which operates the Superstores, said about its decision to introduce kosher meat in some of its Winnipeg locations.
“Although we cannot discuss specifics in terms of sales and strategy, the introduction of kosher meat in Winnipeg stores came as we realize that this is a growing market and that a number of stores are beginning to receive inquiries from clients interested in the supply of kosher products.”
Winnipeg and Manitoba used to have a thriving fresh kosher meat industry. There were many recognized shoichets and butcher shops. Rabbi Peretz Weizman (formerly of Winnipeg and now living in Toronto) used to boast that his hechsher was universally recognized and that the beef under his supervision was sold as far away as Israel.
But as has happened in other North American communities, over time, the city’s Jewish population declined, and the number of Jews keeping kosher declined even more.
First, the chicken went. After the last chicken processor closed, however, frozen chicken (whole, breast, thighs and legs) was still widely available in outlets in areas with substantial Jewish populations, and ritual cattle slaughter continued on a once- or twice-a-week basis.
But in the summer of 2006, Omnitsky, the city’s last kosher butcher shop, lost its hechsher, and the local kashrut agency retired Winnipeg’s last two shoichets. Within the year, Bathurst Street market also closed due to a lack of business.
What’s changed since then? No one seems to have a clear answer.
Winnipeg’s Jewish population has grown over the past few years with an influx of Israeli and Russian Israeli immigrants. (After reaching a high of 21,000 in 1961, Winnipeg’s Jewish population dropped to 14,000 by 2002 and now stands at about 16,500 due to an immigrant recruitment drive.)
But the newcomers generally don’t keep kosher.
Perhaps it’s a matter of geography. Omnitsky and Bathurst Street Market were both located in the north end, while a majority of Jews had moved to south Winnipeg and elsewhere.
The Jewish community wasn’t entirely bereft after Omnitsky and Bathurst closed, however. Although not initially under kosher supervision, Desserts Plus in south Winnipeg had been selling frozen kosher beef and chicken for several years before Omnitsky’s demise. (Desserts Plus has since come under kosher supervision.)
And shortly after Omnitsky went out of business, Gunn’s Bakery in north Winnipeg (one of two long-established kosher bakeries in the city) began stocking frozen beef and chicken for its customers.
“We felt that there was a need in the north end and decided to provide that service [selling kosher meat] to our customers,” said co-owner Fivie Gunn.
Frozen chicken and a small selection of kosher beef products also became available at a north end IGA supermarket.
While Rabbi Ari Ellis of Herzlia Adas-Yeshurun Synagogue is happy to see the additional options, he hopes the added competition doesn’t hurt business at Gunn’s and Desserts Plus.
Initially the supermarkets were selling kosher meat for significantly less than Desserts Plus and Gunn’s.
“We’re not making tons of money on the meat,” Gunn said. “Yet the supermarkets were selling their products for less than we pay to bring it in.”
In recent weeks, that has changed. “The competition has pulled in its horns a bit,” said Desserts Plus’ Ed Reiss. “They were selling at a loss. Now, their prices are similar to ours.”
Gunn said that despite the supermarkets’ lower pricing, his customers remained loyal.
And Desserts Plus also sell deli products and other meats – such as kosher lamb – that no one else carries.