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Skokie Wal-Mart banking big on kosher items

Can the new Skokie Wal-Mart compete with 'kosher Jewel' nearby?

It looks like a typical supercenter, but Wal-Mart Stores is stocking some extras at its new Skokie location: foods ranging from Paskez brand candy to Shor Harbor glatt kosher meat.

Aiming to appeal to observant Orthodox Jews who live nearby, Wal-Mart is carrying several hundred kosher items, more than any other Wal-Mart in the country, managers said.

This week, a table near the entrance was covered with packages of round challah, the traditional bread served during the Jewish new year, or Rosh Hashana, which begins Wednesday night. The challah, and many other baked goods, are brought in from Chicago's North Shore Kosher Bakery.

The kosher products are the latest indication of how Wal-Mart is trying to cater to specific communities. While Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world and the largest seller of groceries in the United States, it is playing catch-up in featuring items for specific clientele.

A Jewel-Osco on Howard Street in Evanston, for example, has served the Jewish community for years with everything from kosher sliced deli meats to Tein Li Chow, a kosher Chinese takeout and delivery restaurant.

The bulked-up kosher presence underscores how Wal-Mart continues to tweak its tried-and-true formula of low prices on basic goods in order to entice shoppers in the competitive grocery business.

Still, the store is not fully kosher. Nonkosher foods are prevalent, and a Burger King serving foods such as bacon cheeseburgers, problematic because of prohibitions on pork products and the serving of dairy and meat together, is inside the store.

Tim Sutherland, manager of the Skokie store — it opened in August — and a 24-year Wal-Mart employee, said he was attracted to running this store because of the kosher focus. According to Sutherland, the store devotes about 100 square feet in the dry grocery section to kosher products, against 12 square feet in a typical store.

In Skokie, nearly both sides of a grocery aisle are filled with kosher food and traditional supplies, such as memorial candles. Packaged kosher meat, dairy products and baked goods sit in other parts of the grocery section.

If someone is coming to Wal-Mart for general merchandise, such as a bedspread, Sutherland hopes that person will perhaps buy a gallon of kosher milk as well.

"For a new store, it's pretty good," said Shifra Greenspon, a Rogers Park neighborhood resident shopping in the store Tuesday morning. "It looks like they have a lot of things that I'd want."

Still, Greenspon and others said that the long-standing Jewel has a wider selection.

The Wal-Mart does not have a separate kosher deli or bakery, omissions that occurred because construction had been completed when the kosher plan was being pulled together. It orders prepackaged meats and has bread and cakes from companies such as North Shore and Zelda's.

This Wal-Mart is the only one in the chain with rabbinical supervision in the bakery, so that kosher cakes can be decorated on-site. The supervision ensures that the kosher icing and utensils for the cakes, decorated in a separate preparation area, do not touch nonkosher items.

"I would say we probably have 80 percent of the assortment the customer would want," said Sutherland, who is well aware of his competition.

"They do an outstanding job; they are very in tune with the community," Sutherland said of the Evanston Jewel-Osco. "We thought it would be great to have Wal-Mart as an alternative."

Another rival is the Hungarian Kosher Market at 4020 Oakton St. in Skokie.

The Skokie Wal-Mart allows Orthodox customers to pick up a prescription during the Sabbath and delay payment, as handling money is forbidden under customary Jewish law. It also donates kosher products to a local Jewish food bank.

If the store proves successful at catering to the Jewish community here, it could be a blueprint for other locations, officials said. For now, Wal-Mart has no stores in the heart of New York City, but it does have locations in Florida and California, for example, where offering a wider variety of kosher goods might make sense.

"We're not perfect at it yet," Sutherland said. "You just don't get to be an expert at it overnight."

jwohl@tribune.com

Twitter @jessicawohl

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