Island Albertsons is kosher king
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:47 PM
By Ritzy Ryciak
Friday and Tama Wolf -- a vibrant woman whose mother owned a restaurant and grandmother was a caterer -- is preparing kosher boxed lunches for Microsoft employees.
She rattles off deli specials and customer favorites as she completes the lunch box order at Albertsons on the Island.
It's only morning, but the kosher deli, known for its exotic salads and whole chickens, is already busy serving customers.
``We sell a lot of coleslaw,'' says Wolf, the kosher deli's manager, who makes it from scratch.
``You should try the coleslaw,'' she continues.
Wolf scoops up a dish and hands it over the counter. The finely-chopped cabbage is crunchy, seasoned with fresh dill, and delicious. Is there a secret ingredient?
``Tama's love,'' says a smiling Chana Lane, a fellow kosher deli worker.
Given the flavors found in this corner of the store, Tama's love spreads far and wide. In addition to the fresh salads and roasted chickens, the deli offers sliced meat to go, knishes, kugels and kosher pizza from Chicago.
``We are a very good full-service deli,'' says Wolf, a Mashgiach, a trained supervisor of kosher food production, as she scoops salads and seals lunch boxes. ``We do cheese platters. We cook salmon. We try to be there for all people and their needs.''
If you eat kosher -- food prepared and served in accordance with Jewish dietary laws -- you know about the Island's Albertsons. The store has provided kosher food to customers for eight years.
It is one of only a handful of kosher delis in the Puget Sound area and the only one on the Island. Besides offering kosher deli food, the store sells an impressive selection of other kosher products. And the deli, under the supervision of Va'ad HaRabanim, the local rabbinical council, features an on-site pareve (no dairy) bakery -- one of the few in the greater Seattle area -- that specializes in wedding cakes, cookies and desserts.
For these reasons, Seattle businesses and Jewish and non-Jewish people throughout Washington turn to Albertsons to meet their kosher needs. The grocery store also ships kosher food to neighboring states.
``People come from miles away to buy groceries here,'' notes John Gillespie, store manager and a 36-year Albertsons employee. ``They come from everywhere and will buy a month's worth of food and drive home.''
Gillespie figured the deli would be popular. He has advocated for more kosher food at Albertsons for eight years.
``I can tell you that through the years I was asked many times if I was sure we should be doing this?'' remembers Gillespie. ``It took a real commitment on Albertsons' part to stick with it.''
Selling kosher food was risky in the beginning because most of the packaged and perishable kosher products come from New York. Shipping products from the East Coast for one store is very expensive.
``Every customer knows John and appreciates him for bringing their food here,'' confides Wolf. ``It was not the easiest thing to do.''
``It took awhile,'' says Gillespie, a self-proclaimed ``kosherized'' non-Jewish man who takes pride in serving as a liaison between customers and the Albertsons Corporation. ``But it was the right thing to do. No one else was doing it, doing it right and being consistent,'' he said.
Customers couldn't be happier.
``This is just the place,'' says Rose Turner, a Seward Park resident. ``It's funny, I think that I run into more people I know from Seward Park here than I do in Seward Park.''
Today Turner, a traditional Orthodox Jew, fills her cart with goodies from the deli and boxes of kosher sushi -- kosher because the fish is brought in whole, is cut with kosher knives and never comes in contact with shellfish. It is a difficult item to find anywhere but Mercer Island's Albertsons.
``We love their sushi,'' exclaims Turner.
She is not alone in her enthusiasm for Albertsons' kosher food.
Alissa Krieger, a stylish mother with young twins and a 5-year-old, jokes that her family moved to the Island because of the store.
``It helps me a lot,'' says Krieger, who explains that everything her family eats has to be labeled with specific ``hechsers,'' symbols which indicates the food has been certified by a specific rabbinic authority. There are more than 300 hechsers. For many who eat kosher, the well-known ``K'' kosher symbol is not specific enough. Those customers want to know which rabbinic counsel endorsed their food.
Another reason for Albertsons' success is its Community Partner Card. In the past five years the store has given back $250,000 to the community. When customers shop they swipe their Partner Card and 1 percent to 5 percent of what they spend goes to schools, churches, baseball teams, and synagogues.
In addition to a full-service deli and the bakery, Albertsons cuts fresh kosher meat five days a week and offers fresh kosher fish. The store ships kosher meat to five states and serves as the local supplier to many of the smaller kosher delis in the Seattle area. Roger Hirsch, Albertsons' meat cutter for seven years, owned Seattle's only kosher meat shop before he came to work for Albertsons.
``Once we got the support, it just grew,'' says Gillespie of the kosher food sales.
He sends out a weekly Kosher King e-mail announcing store specials to 900 families in the Northwest.
``We actually draw a lot of people to the Island.''
That includes out-of-town visitors, such as Sheri and Bob Simon. They came to Albertsons to stock up on kosher food. Residents of Rochester, N.Y., the couple discovered information about Albertsons on shamash.org, a Jewish network Web site.
``We are modern Orthodox, and we needed to find a kosher meal,'' explains Bob, who mapped out the kosher places they would visit before they left New York.
``We get a tremendous amount of visitors from all over the world,'' says Wolf, as she excitedly offers restaurant recommendations to the New Yorkers and packages their deli goods.
The three share stories about how they find kosher food when they travel and the amazing people they meet.
``Kosher food is all about community,'' concludes Sheri.
Albertsons Kosher Deli, 2755 77th Ave. S.E., Mercer Island; 232-0244. Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to two hours before sunset Friday; closed Saturday.