As Minnesotans prepare for another year of everything you can imagine deep-fried and on a stick, this year the Minnesota State Fair will feature a new first: A kosher-certified food vendor.
After moving to the Twin Cities and being disappointed with the lack of available kosher options, Rabbi Avi Olitzky founded MSP Kosher in 2010 with three main goals: To provide strict kosher supervision free of charge and reduce the cost of kosher foodstuffs in the Twin Cities. To increase the quantity of supervised kosher establishments and foodstuffs in the Twin Cities. And to provide transparency in kashrut supervision.
“My attitude was always that the restaurateur or food purveyor was doing me and the Jewish community a favor, as opposed to what I was perceiving as the message that ‘we’re [MSP Kosher] doing you a favor’ by giving you kosher certification,” Olitzky said.
Olitzky said he decided to work with Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar because of their popularity, in addition to what he believed would be an easy certification process.
“Because of my knowledge of the baking industry, I imagined that their dough would have to be mass-produced at a bakehouse. And so by working with the bakehouse, it was going to be a quick yes or no, and if I got the yes from the bakehouse then the rest of the pieces would fall into place,” Olitzky said. “And of course it doesn’t hurt that my own children were pretty upset not being able to have the cookies. And so the selfish personal victory is I’m excited about having a cookie for the first time as are my children.”
According to Olitzky, the certification process varies from business to business but includes two main steps to evaluate if becoming kosher-certified is in the company’s best interest. The first involves a site visit to inspect the preparation area and ingredients, followed by the second step of reviewing the process and determining what needs to change.
“One of the things that I’m committed to is not jeopardizing the integrity of the quality of the product that any of the organizations or companies that I work with produce,” Olitzky said. “So if Sweet Martha’s felt that we would need to change the recipe in a different way, or jeopardize the taste that they’re already known for, then I would have said to them ‘Let’s not do this.’”
Although Sweet Martha’s is the only kosher-certified vendor at this year’s fair, Olitzky said he thinks the certification is greatly significant to increasing inclusion of both Jewish and Muslim customers who might seek out both kosher and halal certification.
“There is no doubt in my mind as my father has already said many times, and my father is my greatest teacher, that Judaism can enter the marketplace like this,” Olitzky said. “So no longer is Judaism relegated to the ethnic food aisle. No longer is kosher relegated to that aisle. Maybe we find that to be the case in Minnesota a little bit more than we do on the coasts or in Chicago, but by saying here’s a product that has an amazing fan base, and by the way, it’s also kosher, that pushes the envelope further into Judaism entering the marketplace and the marketplace of ideas.”
Olitzky also said the certification may give Jews around the Twin Cities something to be excited for and proud of while visiting the fair this year.
“If this does for kosher food what Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song did for Jewish kids, it provides both pride and humility all at the same time because it also means here’s a wonderful company who’s willing to go out of their way to serve the needs of our community,” Olitzky said.
When asked if he thinks other vendors will follow suit of Sweet Martha’s in the future, Olitzky didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“Undoubtedly,” he said. “Not only do I expect other companies and food purveyors at the fair to want kosher certification, but I’m also comfortable and excited about the possibility of broader communal participation in kosher certification.”
Whether you’re planning on stopping by Sweet Martha’s for your annual bucket of cookies or trying them for the first time this year, Olitzky encouraged customers to thank the vendor for becoming kosher.
“If you’re going to patronize one of the Sweet Martha’s stands, be sure to thank them for going kosher this year so that they know the impact.”