Hebrew National Latest to Go : Kosher Food Firms Joining Exodus From Big Apple

Times Staff Writer

This city has been losing its apparel industry, its printing business and its heavy machinery manufacturing trade for years, and that's a problem. But if New York could no longer grind out a kosher baloney, case a kosher hot dog or salt a brisket for pastrami, said Norman Deutsch, that would be serious.

The kosher foods business "is what this town was all about," Deutsch said. And now "you can see it just dwindling away."

Deutsch was referring to a decision by Hebrew National Kosher Products, the largest kosher foods manufacturer, to move its main plant from Maspeth, Queens, to Indianapolis amid a 4-month-old strike by its butchers union. The move cost 61-year-old Deutsch and 178 others their jobs and was taken here as another sad sign that the kosher foods business is making a slow exodus from its high-cost homeland.

In August, Monarch Wine Co. announced that it would close the Brooklyn winery where it has made the Manischewitz line of wines and sell the brand to Canandaigua Wine Co., an Upstate outfit. Freirich Food Products Co., a Long Island City manufacturer of kosher-style meats, has moved a portion of its operation to North Carolina, and industry sources said that Mogen David's kosher meat division is considering a move as well.

Rabbis and union leaders have appealed for help to Gov. Mario Cuomo, the New York City Council and other politicians, but many in the business believe that the problem will not be quickly solved. Demand for kosher food products has been flat, while costs have continued to climb.

Labor and utilities costs and taxes are far higher in New York than in most parts of the country. And other states' job development authorities have shown themselves to be more willing to float bonds to assist in building plants, said Douglas C. Anderson, president of Palm Beach Marketing Group and a former director of a New York kosher meats company. "Put those things together and you've got a pretty compelling argument to move."

The departure of the meat companies, both kosher and non-kosher, is reflected in declining membership of the butchers unions in greater New York to 6,000 from about 14,000 at its peak in the 1950s, union officials said.

The kosher food companies have another reason to leave. Because of the slow growth of the kosher foods business, many firms--including Hebrew National--are trying to expand from their traditional role as regional specialty food suppliers to become major suppliers of foods for mainstream tastes, industry officials said.

To give their products more appeal to the average American, many of the kosher meat companies are adding fat and reducing the amount of garlic and other spices, marketer Anderson said. "They've essentially de-ethnicizing it to satisfy the tastes of Middle America," he said.

Hebrew National, a family-controlled company with 1985 sales of about $120 million, has about two-thirds of the national market for kosher hot dogs, Anderson estimates. The company makes kosher baloney, salami, corned beef and pastrami and also manufactures a line of non-kosher foods at a south Florida plant.

The companies' departures have not come without resistance. Local 174 of the United Food and Commercial Workers went on strike in June when the company, in contract talks, pressed the union to give up the 60-cents-an-hour wage advantage that its members had enjoyed for more than a decade over butchers at other New York-area companies.

Shifted Production

In August, as the strike entered its tenth week, Hebrew National said it would shift production from Queens to the new plant in Indianapolis and that employees would have to move to Indiana to keep their jobs. The Indianapolis plant has reached full production only this month, said Martin Silver, Hebrew National's executive vice president.

The butchers at the new operation receive $5.10 an hour, compared to the $11.70 an hour that members of the New York local used to receive.

"We had no choice," one company official said. "We were nowhere close to settling, so we were forced to move."

Those who walked off the job in June included three rabbis who were paid to see that Hebrew National's products met kosher standards in slaughtering, deveining, soaking and salting. They were among those who objected that the company was leaving the city with the largest Jewish population--about 1.2 million Jewish residents--for a town with about 11,000 Jews.

The move also brought objections that the new factory was formerly used by the Rath meatpacking company to prepare pork products. "There's no way they should even be using that place," said Joe Frieman, a former Hebrew National employee.

Non-Union Workers

The company used the clerical help, managers and non-union workers to run the plant. But in August, when the company announced its plans to move in the face of stalemated talks, the mood turned ugly. A small bomb went off one August night in a car owned by Gene Pines, who is a cousin of principal owner Isadore Pines and a transportation and distribution manager at the plant.

Some company officials complained that they were harassed by anonymous phone calls.

The union began a boycott of Hebrew National products. The union said the boycott made grocery stores reluctant to feature Hebrew National products in their display cases, and sales were reduced. Hebrew National's Silver said the boycott has had "no real adverse impact."

The union also contends that the company planned to move eventually to Indianapolis even before the strike and that the walkout only hastened their departure. Longtime employee Deutsch said he's still shocked to think that he's lost a well-paying job at a company that seemed so permanent a part of New York.

"That this kind of thing can happen, I still can't believe," he said.

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