Kosher Distributors Stake a Claim in the Philadelphia Food Market

On Fridays, the warehouses at A&L Foods are practically bare. Shipments of groceries, refrigerated goods and frozen food — all kosher — have been delivered to supermarkets, retail stores, colleges and nursing homes throughout the Philadelphia region. The drivers set out early in the morning, to have their goods delivered well in advance of the Shabbas rush.

A&L may be headquartered in Baltimore, where it has distributed kosher food since 1938, but last spring, it opened up a full-service warehouse in Bensalem for the distribution of exclusively kosher food to the area. One year later, it's doing just fine. Brand names like Manischewitz, Streit's and Zomick's make up some of A&L's nearly 6,000 items — dry and perishable — which make their way to stores throughout the region.

In making the decision to start up a new location, the company realized that Philly was an almost untapped market with a great deal of potential, said Barney Brockman, who runs sales to area retail stores.

Supermarkets in neighborhoods like Wynnewood and Narberth were stocking more and more products in their kosher sections, and some grocers even ran full-scale kosher delis. The demand for kosher goods was there; someone just needed to provide them.

"The supermarkets decided to go after the business the little guys had," said Irv Koller, who runs A&L's supermarket distribution. The large chains began expanding their kosher sections and competing for the business that once exclusively belonged to independent retailers.

"While there were companies that did similar things as us, there wasn't one company that did everything kosher," said Andrew Lansman, owner of A&L, who touted his outlet as a one-stop shop, as opposed to buying piecemeal from manufacturers.

He also said that through him, vendors can also purchase smaller quantities of desirable goods.

And since A&L's trucks had been running from New York distributors to the Baltimore region, Philadelphia seemed a natural stop along the way, a point of expansion. The company had broken into the Philly market five years ago from its Baltimore site; a local warehouse seemed the next logical step.

The Bensalem A&L has six full-time employees: Brockman, Koller, two drivers and two warehouse staff. The trucks set out each morning, five days a week; on Fridays, they race to make their deliveries before sunset.

The 66-year-old Koller, who's been in the food biz since 1969, said that A&L serves every major grocery-store chain in some way, except for Pathmark, a New York-based company that buys directly from manufacturers.

"Genuardi's in Wynnewood was our first big customer," he said, and then Acme in Narberth came along when they decided to put a kosher deli in-house.

"In this market area, Wynnewood and Narberth are No. 1," said Koller. A new Wegman's in Warrington and the ShopRite on Roosevelt Boulevard in the Northeast are also key customers.

Doing business with supermarket chains involves dealing with the corporations and a lot of bureaucracy, he attested, but keeping the connection personal is crucial.

"If you establish a rapport at the store level with the guy who's running the kosher department, that can help," said Koller.

'The Customer Base'

A&L's competitive bent comes from being able to offer an entire line of kosher goods — not just matzah from here and rye bread from there — along with personalized, local service.

"We're getting a lot of good response from people we get to," said Brockman. He noted that both product line and the bottom line remain vitally important.

"But it's very difficult trying to break into the area without name recognition," said Brockman. He, for one, has brought a certain expertise to A&L: His former job was in sales for Marshall Smoked Fish, sold in general supermarkets.

"I know the customer base," he stated. "If I didn't sell there, I ate there."

Though he has taken advantage of his previous connections, the expanded territory has also provided a learning experience. He went from selling a product line of eight or so items to thousands of different choices.

A&L currently serves all the Genuardi's stores in the area, but only 15 Acme Markets, according to its owners. The growth areas are in the supermarkets, Koller said, because kosher "mom-and-pop" delis aren't nearly as prevalent as they used to be.

The company is also looking to become even more of a fixture in the Philadelphia community, hoping to expand to schools and synagogues, said Lansman. "I would like to become a staple in the Philadelphia area."


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