BY JONATHAN HORN
ContributorIt is nearly 2 on Sunday afternoon, a time when business is usually booming at La Jolla’s kosher Renaissance Produce market. But today, only one customer peruses the small shop’s aisles.
“It’s never been like this on Sunday,” said Sam Barnes, who owns the store with his wife, Rachel. “It was crowded here on Sundays.”
Many of the regular Renaissance Center kosher shop’s customers are presumably two miles west, filling carts at the newly opened Ralphs Kosher Experience section.
After more than three years of planning and five months of construction, the back-right corner of the grocery store is 1,500 square feet of full-service kosher selections. It offers precooked rotisserie chickens, seafood, baked goods, deli meats, wines, and essentially the foods that many in the Jewish community used to have to special order, or drive to Los Angeles to find.
“It was almost like the excitement of the building of the synagogue, the day it opened it was amazing,” said Adat Yeshurun Rabbi Jeff Wohlgelernter, who worked with Ralphs in planning the kosher section.
Going back yearsThe project’s completion was the latest accomplishment in a decade-long relationship between the rabbi and the corporation.
“It goes back many many years,” said Steve Mione, senior director for Ralphs service deli operations. “Rabbi Jeff was first involved in bringing kosher seafood to the Ralphs in La Jolla, and there was a definite need for the community to have kosher seafood.”
Since then, the rabbi and Mione worked to provide more for the San Diego Jewish community, ultimately the kind of selection that was above and beyond what any local market could offer. Wohlgelernter, along with a full-time mashgiach, will oversee the new store-within-a-store to make sure it follows kosher laws.
“I don’t want to put down any of the places that we have now,” Wohlgelernter said. “They’re having a hard enough time - those guys really service the Jewish community.”
Changing nicheAnd it was a year ago in this struggling economy that Barnes found his business niche by converting his small-market to be fully kosher. Business began to thrive; the Jewish community responded. At the time they did not have much of a choice, as the only local competition was near San Diego State University.
“I didn’t know about Ralphs,” he said of his decision to alter his store. “If I knew I wouldn’t have become kosher.”
Still, Barnes said he understands why shoppers would rather be at the 83,000-square-foot grocery store, and predicts all other local kosher markets will close.
“You cannot blame people if they prefer to have a big store, a lot of things to choose from, they have a lounge over there, you can sit,” he said, standing next to two empty picnic tables inside his non-air-conditioned shop. “I went over there and I looked and it’s nice. It’s big but it’s going to make us disappear.”
Market needRalphs chose to build its first-ever “Kosher Experience” at its La Jolla store not only because of its size, but also that there is already too much competition in the Los Angeles area, where there is a larger and more established Jewish community, and several kosher markets.
It was not until the 1960s, when UCSD opened, that Jews were even able to own property in La Jolla. But today, the market here exists, and the Ralphs, which sold out of kosher rotisserie chickens on openings night, is aiming to capitalize.
“Our goal is to make this a profitable concern,” Mione said. “If we can achieve those results, then our goal is to be able to take this to other stores where the demographics are right.”
Claire Ellman, a 22-year La Jolla resident who keeps kosher, shopped in the Ralphs section the night it opened. She then returned the next day.
“We had a picnic on the beach,” she said, emphasizing the need for a full kosher deli in San Diego. “I came and bought my entire roast chicken and salads and breads and deserts and the whole dinner.”