By Sherri Day

June 28, 2003 — Standing six feet tall, with a reddish-brown beard, Yakov M. Yarmove cuts an impressive figure as he whizzes through the aisles of Albertsons grocery stores.

On a recent afternoon in May at a Jewel-Osco store in Highland Park, Ill., part of the Albertsons chain, Mr. Yarmove, who is the chain’s corporate kosher category manager, straightened food displays and reminded store clerks to adjust the prices on discounted items. He also fielded questions from customers; it is not uncommon for a shopper, seeing the yarmulke atop his head, to mistake him for a rabbi.

“Beautiful,” he said as he passed a bin of kosher chicken selling for $1.99 a pound. He beamed at a shelf displaying Jamaica John piña colada, bloody mary and margarita mixes — all of them kosher. “It doesn’t sound Jewish,” Mr. Yarmove said. “It’s beautiful.”

Mr. Yarmove, 34, is Albertsons point man in the kosher food market. Sales of kosher foods — foods that are prepared according to kashrut, the dietary regulations of Judaism — have grown wildly over the last few years, largely because of new customers who buy them not for religious reasons but because they are considered to be healthier than nonkosher products.

While regional stores, especially those in the Northeast, have long had a varied selection of kosher foods, national grocery chains are now trying to push farther into Middle America, often to places where the Jewish population is scant. National grocery chains including Pathmark, ShopRite and Albertsons have aggressively retooled their kosher offerings, as have big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Kmart.

“Metro New York is easy to do,” said Mr. Yarmove, who worked in the food business for 11 years before joining Albertsons last year. “It’s like selling water in the desert. The key is to leave and go into a remote area. That’s the excitement of the business, going out into places where no one has gone before.”

Stores like Albertsons and Wal-Mart are hoping to extend the growth in kosher foods, which reached $165 billion in sales in 2002 from $45 billion in 1996, according to Integrated Marketing Communications, which publishes Kosher Today, an industry newsletter. Most of that growth has come from people outside of observant Jewish communities, with 28 percent of the country’s population saying they have knowingly purchased a kosher product, while only 8 percent said they bought kosher foods for religious reasons, according to a March 2003 survey by Mintel Consumer Intelligence.

Other religious groups, including Muslims and Seventh-day Adventists, whose dietary laws are similar to kashrut, often turn to kosher products when food prepared according to their own religious codes is not available.

Albertsons has kosher sections in all of its 1,750 grocery stores. Many of those stores, including some in Las Vegas; Seattle; Santa Fe, N.M.; Fort Worth; and Portland, Ore., offer an expanded selection of kosher foods, with a frozen-food section, a packaged dairy and cheese section and packaged baked goods. Where there is a sizable Jewish community, or a smaller one that is underserved, Albertsons puts in larger, full-service kosher sections.

At its Highland Park store, which is outside of Chicago and has a significant Jewish customer base, Albertsons has installed a kosher bakery, deli and meat department. Each section is kept completely separate from its nonkosher counterpart — the entrances are locked at night so no contamination between food or utensils can take place — and has a mashgiach, a person certified to oversee that the food has been prepared according to Jewish law.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, has begun to offer kosher food in about 600 supercenters and neighborhood markets, although the number of offerings can vary store to store.

“All Wal-Mart’s strive to be a store of the community, reflecting products that customers in their communities are requesting,” said Karen A. Burk, a company spokeswoman. “No two stores will carry the same number of selections as no two communities are alike.”

Burt Flickinger, a managing partner with the Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting firm, said the chains have set out to dominate kosher food. “The national chains saw that they were losing kosher customers not only during the holy days, but every day of the week,” he said.

The recent popularity in kosher foods has resulted, in part, from Jews looking to reconnect with their heritage, as well as from purchases by members of other religious groups.

But the greatest boon to the industry has been people seeking out kosher food for health reasons: lactose-intolerant consumers who buy pareve products, which contain neither meat nor dairy products; and vegans, vegetarians and people with food allergies who favor kosher foods because the industry’s labeling practices are considered to be more rigorous.

Kedem brand tea biscuits, low in carbohydrates, are popular among Atkins’ dieters. Wolff’s kasha, pure buckwheat, is a health food staple. Kosher meat is also perceived as being healthier than typical nonkosher meat because of the strict rules regarding the slaughter and inspection of animals.

“There seems to be some kind of hidden value in the kosher certification that major manufacturers have not picked up on,” said David Lockwood, a senior editor at Mintel. “If they were to do so, there could be a bigger jump in the kosher food sales.”

The kosher market already includes many mainstream foods that most people do not realize have kosher certifications. Frito-Lay’s classic potato chips have been certified kosher since 1994; Coca-Cola has been since the early 1930’s.

It was in 1997, considered a watershed in the history of kosher food, that Nabisco’s Oreo cookies received certification. Earlier this year, for example, Lipton began making a line of kosher soup mixes.

“In 1984, there was something like 16,000 kosher products, today there’s approaching 80,000,” said Menachem Lubinsky, the president and chief executive of Integrated Marketing Communications, the publisher of Kosher Today. “This has created a worldwide kind of trend that if you want to sell in America to the food market, you have to have kosher ingredients.”

Mr. Yarmove says he sees his work in the food industry as a religious calling. Before taking this turn, he had been on a more conventional clerical path. Mr. Yarmove graduated from the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J., served as a civilian chaplain in the Coast Guard and worked as a director of inmate services with the Lubavitch Youth organization.

He came to Albertsons after working as the corporate kosher marketing specialist at Price Chopper Supermarkets/Golub Corporation in Schenectady, N.Y. (Mr. Yarmove did not move to Boise, Idaho, where Albertsons is based, because Boise lacked an Orthodox Jewish day school his four children could attend. He moved instead to the Chicago area, where Jewel-Osco, a unit of Albertsons is based.)

His goal is to fill supermarkets with a larger variety of kosher foods that will appeal to both observant Jews — “they’re no longer saying they want matzo, borscht and gefilte fish” — and to crossover customers.

“We’re trying to take a gourmet approach to kosher,” said Mr. Yarmove, who holds kosher food taste tests in his stores to appeal to nontraditional customers. “We want to definitely keep the ethnic audience, but at the same time show that kosher is appealing to many customers. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate kosher.”

But, he admits that the perception that kosher foods are healthier, while attractive to new customers, can be misleading.

“I can show you plenty of unhealthy kosher chocolates and candies that are just as unhealthy as its counterparts in the nonkosher candy world,” Mr. Yarmove said. “Vegetable oil is vegetable oil. If it clogs your veins does it matter if it’s kosher or not?”