Homegrown hechsher serves state’s cottage food businesses
West Virginia, a state widely, though undeservedly, known for road kill jokes, has its own hechsher symbol.
Relax. That doesn’t mean road kill is kosher in the Mountain State. It does, however, mean that a small number of cottage industry food producers — a bakery, a salsa maker, a tofu producer, to name some — anxious to reach out to kosher Jewish consumers, have sought a credible, and affordable, kosher certification.
And Rabbi Victor Urecki has obliged.
The spiritual leader of B’nai Jacob Congregation in Charleston, Urecki has been certifying parve and dairy food producers (no meat) for 10 years. He said his predecessors did the same.
The major difference, Urecki said, is that he developed and copyrighted his own hechsher symbol as a “service” to some West Virginia food purveyors, including at least one in his own congregation, who wanted to market their products out of state.
“They look at it as a symbol of pride that this product is kosher,” Urecki said.
West Virginia isn’t the only state with its own hechsher symbol. Several hechsher symbols across the United States, some well known, such as the O.U. symbol of the Orthodox Union, others maintained by local or regional boards of rabbis, even individual rabbis, as in Urecki’s case.
In West Virginia, where at least six companies have received Urecki’s hechsher (others are pending), the rabbi said some of the producers inquired with larger hechsher providers, but found it difficult or impossible to afford.
“I don’t charge for it,” Urecki said. “It’s a service for anyone in West Virginia who has a product they want to promote.”
Urecki doesn’t misrepresent himself.
“I tell them it’s only as good as the rabbi or the organization that’s behind it,” the Yeshiva University-trained rabbi said. “I always tell them [the business owners], if you want this to fly you should contact the O.U. Well, when they contact the O.U. the price to just look at the product is cost prohibitive.”
Thistle Dew Farms, a honey producer in Proctor, W.Va., is one business that sought a hechsher from an out-of-state provider before going with Urecki.
“We checked several large organizations and they are all very, very expensive; and we’re small — I mean we’re really small,” said Ellie Conlon, who co-owns Thistle Dew Farms with her husband, Steve, “so there was no way we could afford that kind of symbol at this point in our business. We’ve been in business for three years and I doubt we will ever get that big.”
How expensive were the other hechsher providers?
Over $1,000 per year, according to Conlon. “Some of them were $2,500. It was totally out of our budget.”
The Orthodox Union, arguably one of the best-known kosher certification authorities, did not disclose the cost for its hechsher, calling it “proprietary information,” its spokesman said.
But Conlon, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia, said there is a need for hechshers such as the one Urecki provides, noting that niche businesses like hers could otherwise never budget for it.
“I grew up in a Jewish community, and I realize how important it is to have a symbol that shows your product has been checked out,” she said. Larger certification boards have told her that her hechsher “doesn’t mean anything, but to individual synagogues and individual people, they recognize it right away, and they purchase it (the product) right away.”
“Rabbi Urecki has filled a niche for small producers,” Conlon added. “He’s a great guy.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)