Hungry magazine

Bill Owades has served for 10 years as kosher buyer for Fairway Market, a New York foodie favorite

Bill Owades has served for 10 years as kosher buyer for Fairway Market, a New York foodie favorite

King of Kosher/April 29, 2009

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Early afternoon on a weekday is a period of comparative calm in the Harlem branch of Fairway Market, which is housed in a brightly painted warehouse on the Hudson River, not far from Columbia University and New York’s City College. On weekends and evenings, the customers navigate their shopping carts like bumper cars through the narrow aisles, but in the afternoons, they stroll at a very un-New York-like pace. The store’s staff seems to slow down a little, too, unpacking fruit with extra care and indulging customers who can’t make up their minds about the exact kind of smoked salmon they want.

On the day before Passover, during one of these early afternoon lulls, Bill Owades, Fairway’s kosher buyer, was operating at his usual break-neck speed.

Owades is solidly built man with bushy eyebrows and a gravelly voice; he talks and walks quickly. On this occasion, he was barking into his cell phone as he whizzed past the deli counter, where two women were debating adding another vegetable dish for the next night’s Seder. Then, in no time, it seemed, he was back in the kosher-for-Passover aisle, still on the phone, alternately chewing out and thanking some supplier. He began reshuffling a shelf of Fairway’s special-roasted kosher-for-Passover Columbian coffee, which he says draws customers from 50 miles away.

A thin woman with a full cart spotted Owades and asked which brand of bottled gefilte fish he would recommend; Fairway’s storemade version, which she’d tasted at the deli counter, was too sweet. Owades gestured to a brand on the bottom shelf, below some spelt matzoh and kosher-for-Passover marshmallows. “Not too sweet, no MSG and no preservatives,” he said.

Another woman, round with gray hair, inquired about matzoh crackers. “All gone, long gone,” Owades said hurriedly and not particularly apologetically. “That was the hottest Seder item I had.” He took a quick peek in the thin woman’s cart, as he is fond of doing, and pointed at a carton of juice. “You know that’s not Pesach [Passover]? You have to go down an aisle for that.”

Owades prides himself on giving such advice, even when it’s unsolicited. After a decade in the kosher food business, he has strong opinions about the fluffiest flour-free Passover dessert or the freshest-tasting frozen meal, and he doesn’t hesitate to share them. He can come off as brusque, but most customers seem to appreciate his honesty and his passion, says Rabbi Avrohom Marmorstein, who certifies the store’s kosher butcher shop and bakery. “He has a way of steering you to the apple sauce that he thinks is the best and the cheapest,” Marmorstein says. “But if you want Mott’s, you don’t feel offended.”

Fairway, a family-owned chain that also has stores on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and in Brooklyn, Long Island and northern New Jersey, has a loyal customer base of price-conscious foodies. Owades, who is based in the Harlem store, considers it an essential part of his job to provide kosher options that are just as tasty, varied and reasonably-priced as the rest of the store’s inventory. “Fairway is a place that people come to look for new and interesting things. They’re not just coming here for the mundane Tropicana and Bounty towels and Tide detergent,” Owades said, on a rare break in the corporate office after a long day of Passover preparations. “The assumption is that if there’s hazelnut oil that ‘regular’ people are buying, that possibly kosher people might want to use that also. Is it something that millions of people are going to buy? No. But if there’s a few people interested in that sort of gourmet, little niche product, we give it a try.” He paused. “I don’t have a lot of failures.”

Owades, who is 50, came to Fairway in 1998 as the first kosher buyer in the store’s history. He grew up in Brooklyn and Westchester, the son of the man who invented light beer. He has kept kosher since he was a child. “Food,” he says, “has always been one of my favorite things, no question about it. Fairway has brought a new intensity to that level of caring, though.” The store has provided Owades with an education, not only in the business of kosher products, but also in the preferences and philosophies of people who care deeply about what they eat. “It really is a place that draws people who have a real depth of food interest and knowledge,” he says. “And so I would say I’m more a collection of knowledge I’d gained than knowledge I had.”

His time at Fairway has coincided with an explosion in the national market for kosher foods. Kosher products have long had what Owades’ friend Martin Siegel, who oversees distribution for Kedem kosher foods diplomatically refers to as a “very traditional” focus. Now, conservative and orthodox Jews are becoming more discerning in their tastes, and non-Jewish customers, concerned about food safety or their children’s food allergies, are increasingly buying kosher, too. Sugar-free or gluten-free kosher products are taking off. People have come to see the Orthodox Union’s kosher logo as “a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” Owades says.

Owades won’t disclose his exact sales numbers, though he will say they’re seven or eight times larger than the 2003 figures. “I’m friggin’ good at what I do,” he says, without embarassment. “And I’m not just good, I’m uniquely good.” If Owades knows his stuff, he’s also not afraid to let colleagues know when they haven’t met his standards, says Martin Siegel, who oversees distribution for Kedem kosher foods and has worked closely with Owades for 10 years. “He knocks me down all the time,” Siegel says, referencing the two men’s near-daily phone conversations. “Next time he’ll pick me up and brush me off.”

In addition to obsessively crunching the numbers, Owades keeps a close eye on food trends and scouts out products at gourmet food fairs that he thinks could easily get kosher certification. (Some, like the cult favorite Koeze peanut butter, from Michigan, have subsequently gotten certified, though it’s not clear whether Owades was the driving force). Though he keeps kosher at home, he’ll try non-kosher products to see how they compare to the ones he stocks. Kosher, Owades believes, need not connote inferior taste, quality or selection.

Owades has a small, glass-windowed office overlooking the kosher aisle in Fairway’s Harlem store, but he spends a lot of time chatting with customers and studying their shopping carts for clues to buying patterns. He has handed out his business card for the past six years, and he receives several dozen e-mails a week from customers inquiring about food ingredients, or suggesting new products. He’s open to suggestions, but with just 29 feet of combined shelf space in the two Manhattan stores, he can’t afford to take many chances. He’ll stock a small selection of a new product in Harlem so he can watch how it sells. If people don’t take to it, he doesn’t “give it another breath.” If they do, he’ll stock in every store.

Passover presents its own inventory challenges. Owades estimates about 50 percent of the Harlem store’s customers are Jewish; at the store’s flagship Upper West Side location, that number is even higher. Most Passover shoppers don’t keep kosher year-round, but nearly all of them make some attempt to adhere to the holiday’s eating rules. “Everybody eats matzoh, everybody has a Seder, everybody eats macaroons, no matter how little religion is in the rest of their lives,” Owades says. “What happens is basically everybody comes shopping at Passover.”

He makes a point of restocking right up until the holiday, and then ordering some fill-in products, like extra matzoh, after the eight-day holiday begins. That’s rare, Rabbi Marmorstein says. At most stores, even in heavily Jewish New York, what you see three weeks before the holiday is what you get.

This year, sales were through the roof, despite the recession (Owades said the company would not want him to disclose the numbers). Chocolate covered matzoh was an especially popular item. Owades speculated that perhaps fewer people were traveling out of town or staying at the special kosher-for-Passover hotels, that have become popular in recent years.

He was thrilled about the spike in sales, but it was only halfway through the holiday, and already, he was trying to figure out how to replace Passover foods with the regular kosher inventory. Fairway aims for as quick a turnaround as possible, but with suppliers closed for the holiday, that was proving a headache. As for the leftovers, they would be donated to local charities.

“If you’ve got macaroons on your shelves months after Passover, you’re turning into a schlock factory,” Owades said, by way of explanation. “Fairway wasn’t one before I got here, it’s not one now that I’m here, and it won’t be after I’ve already gone.”