For starters, there's a mashgiach on site, something not offered in most grocery stores. A different kind of security guard, the mashgiach is a specially trained observant Jew who is there to make sure everything in the store's recently opened kosher section is, well, really kosher.
So far, so good. On a recent Sunday morning, shoppers at the revamped Ralphs at Third Street and La Brea Avenue appeared delighted with the spanking new Kosher Experience, which includes a deli, bakery, meat and fish departments, frozen food section, plus shelves full of wines and packaged foods. As customers wheeled their carts, rabbinical student Menachem kept a watchful eye on the operation.
"People trust the mashgiach," said Menachem, who asked that only his first name be used. He explained that his job is to ensure that all of the strict dietary laws of kashrut are practiced. Although customer service is not really part of his duties, he graciously helped a shopper who interrupted us while we were talking, to help her find an item. "I'm part of the store. I care about my job," he said.
After more than 10 months of construction, Ralphs #39 reopened in early February. One of the biggest changes was the creation of the 1,500 square foot kosher store within a store, which includes a separate meat processing room. This is the first Ralphs Kosher Experience in Los Angeles; the company has another such space in the La Jolla Ralphs.
"We take in all the data and demographics and try to bring to each neighborhood what would best suit them," said Ralphs spokesperson Kendra Doyel, adding that the company plans to open additional Kosher Experiences later on. So can we expect other locations in Los Angeles?
"We're not quite ready to share that at this point," said Doyel. "But certainly after the success in La Jolla -- and we've been very pleased so far with the one in L.A. -- we hope to continue to meet the needs of our customers."
No doubt Ralphs' marketing studies pinpointed Hancock Park-La Brea as an area with many observant Jews. But the Kosher Experience appears to be attracting people of other faiths as well. Los Angeles shopper Nettie Robertson, who is not Jewish, was buying prepared kosher chicken wings when we caught up with her. She said she's been a longtime shopper at this Ralphs and that she enjoys the taste and quality of the food in the new kosher deli and bakery.
"I like the atmosphere and I like the people who work here," Robertson added, saying she also frequents other neighborhood kosher bakeries and restaurants.
On Shabbat and some holidays, the Kosher Experience service areas are closed and no work is done behind the scenes. Non-observant shoppers, however, can still purchase foods from the freezers, fridges and shelves. So you can have your kosher cake and eat it, too.
And in somewhat related news:
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