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Friday, December 16th, 2011

Caterers Carve Out Kosher Niche

(Premium content from Washington Business Journal)
by Missy Frederick, Staff Reporter

Rockville catering company has been purchased by an investor group and relaunched with an appetite for high-end kosher catering, going head to head with another relatively new caterer in a market that’s no longer just about matzoh ball soup and knishes.

The investor group bought Dahan Caterers for an undisclosed price after founder David Dahan decided to retire, renaming it Potomac 18 Caterers. Leading the new company as CEO and managing partner is Rabbi Yisroel David Bacharach, a New York native who has spent 15 years working with caterers on special projects and advising them on kashrut, or Jewish dietary law, known as kosher in English.

Potomac 18 Caterers and another relatively new kosher catering company, McLean-based The Kosher Kitchen, are targeting more than just bat mitzvahs and synagogue events. They’re going after business from local associations and nonprofits that could be interested in kosher fare. And with some of the area’s largest catering companies, like Bethesda-based Ridgewells Holdings, shying away from kosher business, the two companies may have found a niche.

Potomac 18 has built an entirely new team to run the business, Vice President Abby Sussman said. That includes two veterans from Wolfgang Puck Catering — Executive Chef Andrew DeGroot  and Gustavo Escalante, executive pastry chef. Sussman and saleswoman Dina Silnicky are also both 20-year veterans of the industry.

In its first month of business, Potomac 18 has done work for such clients as the Republican Jewish Committee and a variety of conservative synagogues in the area, Sussman said.

“Some synagogues have shied away from serving kosher over the years, as it has an old-fashioned connotation to it,” Sussman explained. “People think of corned beef and pot roast — that is not us.”

It’s Potomac 18’s job to change perceptions. DeGroot’s cuisine has more of a seasonal, California feel to it, with sauces rooted in French techniques. The company uses substitute ingredients such as coconut milk and herbed olive oil in place of dairy and butter.

Michael Medina  of The Kosher Kitchen, which was formed last year, has a similar philosophy. The Kosher Kitchen’s food leans more toward Mediterranean fare, given Medina’s multicultural background as a Montreal native with Moroccan-Jewish parents.

“The competition can be pretty fierce, but at the same time, there are so few good kosher caterers in the area, and so much to do,” Medina said.

Approximately 12.1 million people in the U.S. regularly consume kosher food, and approximately 21 percent of all Americans purchase kosher products of some sort, such as a kosher hot dog, according to statistics from New York-based Lubicom Marketing and Consulting. The overall market for all kosher products is estimated at $12.5 billion.

Sussman would not disclose revenue for the former Dahan Caterers, but she said Potomac 18’s goal is to double existing sales in 2012, by building on both the former company’s business and pursuing higher-end clients. The Kosher Kitchen, meanwhile, would like to expand to a larger kitchen next year that could accommodate groups of up to 1,000 event attendees, Medina said.

Kosher catering requires an entirely separate, certified kosher kitchen. The preparation must be supervised by a vaad, in D.C.’s case, The Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington. Most kosher catering was done, until recently, by smaller delis and restaurants in the area because of the challenges and restrictions. Some larger catering companies could handle kosher events.

Bethesda-based Ridgewells, the area’s largest caterer with $30.6 million in sales last year, used to have a kosher division and still occasionally does kosher events, but isn’t actively going after the market, CEO Susan Lacz said.

“We found ourselves competing with out-of-town caterers who were clearly less expensive and were better set up to do kosher catering,” Lacz said. Ridgewells has to rent a kosher kitchen anytime it does such an event, which it now occasionally does for longtime clients looking for that specific need. Windows Catering Co. of Alexandria has a kosher division that offers similar services.

For The Kosher Kitchen, which would not disclose revenue, approximately three-quarters of its sales have come from nonprofit events, Medina said. Its average event size is 100 people. The company has done work for large groups such as the American Jewish Council and has found D.C. to be a strong market for nonprofit business because most Jewish-themed organizations are either headquartered in New York with an office in D.C. or based in Washington.

The company has also driven sales by convincing clients looking for just a kosher meal or two that they should do an entirely kosher event, since the company’s food can appeal to a broader base. 

Missy Frederick covers restaurants, hospitality, arts and tourism.