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Israeli food companies aim for the mainstream

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Aunt Berta was a real woman who brought her recipes for jams and preserves with her when she left Europe for Israel so many decades ago, and she and others who went with her were soon using the recipes, and perfecting them, as they set about to feed the Beth El kibbutz.

Today, the 800-person community owns Beth El Food, which in 2005 took the leap from cottage industry to commercial producer of both private label brands and Aunt Berta’s branded preserves, marmalades and sauces, said business development director Muli Flint. On Sunday, the company was one of 11 showing their wares in the Israel Pavilion at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City.

In the next booth, representatives from olive oil producer Olia poured tiny tasting spoons of flavored vinaigrettes infused with fruits such as figs, apples and kumquats, all of them grown in Israel. The company sells its lines, which also include tapenades and mustards, at a high-end boutique as well as a bustling market stall in Tel Aviv.

Olia, Beth El and others are working the show in the hopes of catching the attention of distributors who can help them share their wares with more of the world, especially U.S. consumers, a mission that would prove easier if the companies wanted to add their goods to the kosher niche, said Michal Neeman, food and beverage manager for The Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute. There are several major distributors that serve that niche, but the goal of these and other Israeli companies is to show up on mainstream grocery shelves.

That’s paramount for Shelley Anne Hecht, who has lent her name to a line of crackers, bagel snacks and bread rings that has already expanded its distribution to countries in Europe and Asia. In Israel, the brand is Abadi but for the U.S. market it’s Shelly Anne’s, and the popular snacks are packaged to appeal to American consumers and displayed on shelves to show how they would look lined up at the grocery store, preferably next to the mainstream snack brands and not relegated to the kosher or ethnic foods section, Hecht said.

Another company in the pavilion already has its product in U.S. grocery stores, but not under its own name. Baracke makes tahini, a sesame paste that’s a key ingredient in hummus, and halva, a candy made with tahini and sugar. The company already sells its tahini to the makers of popular hummus brands including Sabra and Tribe, but it has yet to get its branded products on U.S. shelves.

Neviot, a maker of high-calcium, low-sodium flavored mineral waters and a new energy drink line have already cracked the U.S. market a bit, making their way into grocery stores in some markets, including Shop Rite stores in the Northeast that have big kosher in-store shops.

The 11 companies at this year’s show were selected because they offer new and established products that are ready for wider mainstream distribution, but they were also chosen with an eye on illustrating the diversity of the country’s food industry,  Neeman said.

“Israel is a melting pot and there’s such a huge variety of products that comes out of that,” she said.