VALLEY COTTAGE, NY — Kosher consumers on the go have long been accustomed to passing up food courts, restaurants and cafeterias offering every kind of food but kosher, and settling for a less-than-satisfying bagged snack and cold drink.
Now, thanks to robotic retailing, these consumers are relishing hot kosher food at airports, hospitals, stadiums and shopping malls where brown-bagging was once their only dining option.
In the two years since its launch, Kosher Vending Industries has proven the scope of the market for away-from-home kosher food. With more than 100 machines in high-profile venues, its accounts range from JFK Airport and the New York University Medical Center to the Meadowlands sports complex in East Rutherford, NJ, as well as the colossal Palisades Center shopping mall in West Nyack, NY, on the outskirts of the greater New York metropolitan area.
The company’s founders, Doron Fetman and Alan Cohnen, report that word is spreading fast, driving demand for placements in high-volume amusement parks, hotels, hospitals, schools, large office complexes and sporting and concert venues. The kosher vending pioneers and their staff exclusively operate their vending machines in the greater New York City market, and are seeking operators across the country interested in becoming licensees of the kosher vending program. A requirement for winning a license is the ability to meet the rigorous food handling standards that ensure food remains kosher throughout the supply chain.
“We’ve proven that the need for kosher food is immense in public locations in the New York area; we can easily see 200 vends per game at a stadium,” said Fetman. “We have a bank of six machines to meet the demand in the international terminal at JFK Airport. And calls are coming in from across the country from major venues that want the machines.
CUSTOM FIT: Kosher Vending Industries’ Alan Cohnen (left) and Doron Fetman (right) meet with Anthony Mendicino, owner of 7-Eleven in Monsey, NY, who says kosher vending machines installed in his store provide the hassle-free solution to serving growing orthodox Jewish community with a quick, hot meal that he has been seeking for years.
“We give a commission to the location, so they can now profit from consumers they never reached,” Fetman explained. “And – finally – they have a way to give kosher customers access to the food they want.”
The kosher vendors have also formed alliances with managed food and vending leaders Aramark, Canteen and Sodexo. These liaisons have enabled the program to expand into high-traffic public sites, including the Brooklyn and Queens zoos. “They have accounts with a need for kosher food that has been unfilled until now,” said Cohnen. “Everyone wants to be able to serve every potential customer they can reach, but they’re missing kosher consumers. Our machines are the easiest way to fill that niche. We maintain and service the machines; they don’t have to worry about it, while they share the profit. We also relay requests for snack and beverage machines to them, so it’s a great partnership.”
As a kosher consumer himself, Fetman recognized the need for accessible kosher meals on the go. And with a dozen years experience working in his family’s kosher catering business, he understood the logistics of complying with kosher standards from preparation of food through delivery to the customer.
His first attempt at reaching the mobile kosher consumer with grab-and-go meals was a kosher food concession at Giants stadium in New Jersey’s Meadowlands sports center. “I saw the pitfalls, the spoilage and staffing issues, and the limited room for growth,” he recalled. “Kosher concessions made sense, but not in that setting. I sold the business to a partner and decided that if I could get the chef, the kitchen and the cashier into one box, there would be unlimited growth potential; the sky would be the limit.”
He approached Cohnen, a longtime friend whose experience in the corporate world and recent sale of his cellular technology business to a public company qualified him as a prospective partner. He immediately grasped the concept and believed strongly in it, and Kosher Vending Industries was launched.
Their first step was identifying available machines that could reliably and attractively meet their vision of vending kosher hot dogs and hot meals. The ideal candidates were KRh Thermal Systems’s Hot Choice automated diner, which they branded as their Hot Nosh machine (it vends dairy and other non-meat selections), and LHD Vending’s HD3000 hot dog vender, which serves as the company’s “Kosher Cart.”
They then searched out the most appealing frozen kosher food items already produced for retail and foodservice, and refined their menu by selecting the ones that would provide the best taste and texture when rethermalized by KRh’s combination of microwave and hot air impingement technology.
Manufactured for KVI under private label, the food for the Hot Nosh machine is packaged in vendible trays that bear the kosher seal. The frankfurters for the Kosher Cart are individually packaged for distribution, handling and storage. Unwrapped inside the novel machine, the frank is cooked automatically using the latest infrared grilling technology. The bun, packaged separately, is warmed while the frankfurter is being grilled. When the process is complete, the vender inserts the frank into the bun and vends the hot dog. The serving-tray is the package that originally contained the bun.
“From the machines to the food, it didn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel,” Fetman told VT. “We found the best that’s out there and customized it to work for us.”
After extensive testing to make certain that the finished products satisfied the mutual standards of both the operators and manufacturers, Kosher Vending Industries signed 20-year exclusive agreements with each equipment maker to be the sole providers of kosher food through the machines.
With an average $3 vend price, the Hot Nosh menu of kosher non-meat items (often collectively called, for convenience, “dairy”) includes Sicilian-style pizza, mozzarella sticks, potato knishes, onion rings and vegetarian cutlets.
Knowing that, in vending, “brands sell,” the kosher vending pioneers recently secured a license to vend Nathan’s Famous hot dogs through their machines. A branded front highlighting the original Coney Island hot dog appeals to frank nostalgia, and will encourage consumer trial and bolster confidence in the vended product, the operators anticipate.
They also are preparing to roll out their recently expended hot food menu to address a wider range of dining occasions. Soon-to-be launched options include baked ziti, macaroni and cheese, breakfast burritos, filled pocket sandwiches, quiches, blintzes and two desserts, a brownie and an apple strudel.
A HIGHER AUTHORITY
All food in the Hot Nosh and Kosher Cart vending machines is “glatt kosher,” which meets the highest kosher standards, satisfying the full spectrum of kosher consumers. The kosher inspection emblem on all products, bearing the names of the supervising rabbis, is well-recognized by these consumers as an assurance of full compliance. A phone number is also posted on the machine that allows consumers to directly contact the prestigious Kof-K supervision service.
Since Nathan’s hot dogs are kosher but lack the “gold standard” glatt certification, the KVI founders recently secured the exclusive right to produce a glatt version. It is under development and will soon replace the current nonbranded glatt hot dogs in their machines.
The kosher market has been growing at an annual rate of 15% for the past several years, according to the KVI founders. They noted that orthodox Jews, whose religion requires them to adhere to a kosher diet, are not the only kosher consumers. The strict standards and close supervision under which food is prepared and packaged makes kosher products acceptable to Muslims who observe the halal dietary law. The “kosher” seal also is an assurance of quality to a growing base of mainstream consumers educated about the higher standards it represents. Additionally, vegetarian consumers are assured that the non-meat items truly are meat-free, while people following lactose-free diets can be certain there are no milk products in the vended hot dogs.
As Fetman and Cohnen’s roster of high-profile venues continues to grow, they are also forming local relationships with branches of national chains that they anticipate will open the door for qualified operators outside their service area. As an example, KVI runs machines at a local 7-Eleven convenience store in the heart of Monsey, NY, the growing orthodox community in which Fetman lives. They’ve proven so successful that, after initially resisting the concept, the convenience store chain has given the green light to extend the vending program to other stores.
Anthony Mendicino, owner of the Monsey 7-Eleven, told VT that he struggled for years to find a practical way to bring hot kosher food to his patrons. The chain is a leader among convenience stores in selling food prepared on site, but Mendicino could not find a realistic way of maintaining the stringent cooking, storage and staffing requirements and the close rabbinical supervision needed to offer a genuine kosher menu.
He finally found a solution in the Hot Nosh and Kosher Cart parlay. “It brings customers into the store,” he told VT. “It’s the perfect fit; I have the customers Kosher Vending Industries needs, and they have the food I need. I see customers come in and go directly to the machine, then buy a soda, chips or cake,” he said. “Sales have been increasing every month, through the machines and in the store, partly because the food machines are providing hot food we never could offer.”
Convincing 7-Eleven corporate decision-makers to give kosher vending a try was not easy, Mendicino told VT. “They didn’t understand how large this orthodox community is, nor how fast it’s growing,” he said. “I took photos of new yeshivas (religious schools) being built, and Doron and Alan met with 7-Eleven management. There were emails and phone calls back and forth for six months,” he recalled. “They weren’t finally sold on the concept until they tasted the food from the machine, which speaks to the quality of the product. Following our success, other 7-Elevens will be installing KVI machines.”
According to Medicino, the biggest hurdle is getting patrons unfamiliar with vending to try the food for the first time. “Once they overcome their hesitation over food from a vending machine, they are pleasantly surprised,” he said. “We are toying with the idea of hosting our first hot dog eating contest, which would be great for publicizing the machines and getting trial of the product.”
KVI also has machine tests under way in select upstate New York Wal-Mart stores as well as at a ShopRite supermarket in New Jersey, where the venders are installed near the checkout area. Just as the inaugural 7-Eleven machines proved the viability of the model for other stores, Fetman and Cohnen anticipate that success at these locations will pave the way for expanded opportunities with both chains, and will arouse the interest of competing retailers.
Funding Kosher Vending Industries’ rapid growth since its inception has been strategic investor Ruby Azrak, who, as a kosher consumer, was sold on the concept as soon as the company founders approached him. Azrak’s high profile as the urban fashion magnate who launched hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons’s Phat Farm clothing line and who represents singer Beyoncé’s House of Deréon couture, also has helped generate publicity and build recognition for the kosher vending enterprise. With the pace of expansion exceeding their initial projections, the KVI founders are currently seeking additional investors.
TO THE BALL GAME
The company’s first venture outside the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state area is in Boston, where its licensee recently deployed machines at historic Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. This project is demonstrating that KVI’s infrastructure can easily support expansion to licensees nationwide. Fetman and Cohnen are currently in talks with prospective operators for their machines in Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
“We want try to surround ourselves with good people who we think will work hard and put our machines in the most favorable light,” said Cohnen.
KVI ships product directly to the operator. To ensure kosher compliance, the machines and food are inspected regularly by a local rabbi in each market. Kosher law also specifies that only orthodox Jews can handle the food, including stocking the machines.
In addition to satisfying customers’ various demands for dietary standard compliance and high product quality, Kosher Vending Industries makes use of the best available technology to satisfy their wishes for convenience and ease of use. All the machines are credit-card capable, and the wireless communication system that supports this also reports daily sales, inventory and technical issues. This allows the operators to schedule service most efficiently, while virtually eliminating equipment downtime. The company enjoys the advantage of starting out with no aging equipment base, and the resulting freedom to conduct straightforward trials of the latest payment and telemetry systems. It presently is working with USA Technologies (Wayne, PA), Cantaloupe Systems (Berkeley, CA) and InOne Technology (Hunt Valley, MD), and reports that it is getting good results from all of them.
“We receive alerts when machines are at 20% of capacity,” Cohnen remarked. “Our accounts constantly tell us how surprised they are that our machines never go empty and, that when there’s an issue, we’re already on our way. We are very lucky to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right technology installed to allow us to execute our vision and get our kosher vending operation off the ground so quickly, on such a large scale.”
Information may be had from Kosher Vending Industries LLC, 711 Executive Blvd., Ste. B, Valley Cottage, NY 10989, tel. (845) 268-1818, or by visiting koshervendingindustries.com.