If you keep kosher, and enjoy eating a handful of Tootsie Rolls or drinking a tall glass of Gatorade, you have Phyllis Koegel to thank. As marketing director of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division, Koegel is charged with convincing companies of the financial and commercial benefits of going kosher—and getting the OU symbol, the most widely recognized kosher-certification in the world, on their product.
Koegel has been all over the world, from China and France to Germany and Italy, and most major cities throughout the United States, to make the case for OU kosher certification, which she’s helped secure for hundreds of products. The only female executive among the in-house OU Kosher staff of more than 55, she works out of a nondescript corner office on the 12th floor of the building at Greenwich Street and Broadway in Manhattan where OU Kosher is stationed. The kosher business is a pretty male-dominated field, and the males in it are mostly very observant rabbis. But if any of them have issues with Koegel—who is Modern Orthodox and favors stylish, brightly colored, but modest blouses and skirts in the workplace—working alongside them, no one shows it, she said. “When I was hired in 2006, I was, and remain, the first non-administrative staff member who’s not a rabbi,” she told me in a recent interview, “but I think it’s worked out well. Working in a religious environment means everyone is very respectful of one another, and furthermore, I feel I’ve earned my stripes. People view me as a true professional, so they treat me that way.”
While I spoke with Koegel in her office, she was fielding calls from a variety of clients. Her virtual Rolodex has everyone from the highest-ranking executives at renowned brands like Coca-Cola and Hershey and others at equally large but lesser-known food-processing conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge, to representatives of one-man manufacturing companies and niche and private labels.
Research and outreach are Koegel’s first steps in discovering which food products are not yet kosher and then finding the right executive—which varies at different companies from CEO to vice president of marketing to someone in the R&D department—to argue for why they should be kosher. “Getting to the right person is usually the hardest part of the process,” said Koegel. “People are always curious to learn more about kosher, and even those who know they’re going to say no to me at the end of the phone call will often still ask for information and an application review for when the time might be right.”
The real meat of Koegel’s job is traveling to 10-12 major food trade shows during the year across North America and Europe, where she meets and mingles with potential new clients and solidifies her existing relationships with established clients. “I’ll go anywhere where there’s opportunity for growth in kosher food,” she said. Recently, Koegel spent the week leading up to the Natural Products Expo in Baltimore by emailing an introduction and short blurb about going kosher to the hundreds of companies who would attend the show. She arrived at the show with 14 personal meetings scheduled in a single day and, periodically refueling with samples from the booths hawking fair-trade organic coffee, met with dozens of other manufacturers curious about becoming kosher-certified.
I’ve seen Koegel in action at the annual two-day Kosherfest at the Meadowlands in Secaucus, N.J., which this year takes place November 11-12. To watch her is to observe a true professional at work: easy kibitzing and effortless small talk, backed by professional in-depth explanations of the kosher-certification process. She’ll speak with anyone from a Hasidic rabbi to the stunned-looking Italian meat vendor who’s experiencing his first kosher expo—with hundreds of Jews who see him as the only thing standing in their way of free samples of smoked brisket. So, it was with a raised eyebrow that I met her admission that she had always been a little shy.
“I developed this kind of outgoing personality over time, and I love meeting people and engaging with them today, but it was challenging and remains tough at times,” Koegel said. “When you sell anything, whether it’s insurance or cars or the concept of kosher, you have to really steel yourself to be unafraid of rejection, and that doesn’t come natural to me. I’ve worked on accounts for months and then won’t hear back until two or three years later.”
But that usually doesn’t happen. A company that’s receptive to Koegel’s outreach can become certified kosher in as little as six weeks, though more often it takes up to three months.
Koegel’s most compelling case for getting companies to go kosher is simple economics, she said: “The more added value a product has, the better and easier it is to get it into a store. Products compete for limited shelf space, so naturally a manufacturer wants something that’s going to appeal to as broad a range of customers as possible, including those who keep kosher.”
Besides, she continued, the customers are asking for it. “As people turn more and more to health-oriented lifestyles, there’s this lingering perception that kosher is healthier,” she said. (Somewhere, a hefty carnivore chowing down at Subsational in Brooklyn is giggling.) “It’s also quality control: The rabbis offer another set of eyes checking to see that everything is, well, kosher. Companies see a kosher symbol as a marketing tool, and it’s all about the bottom line for them. Their return on investment is generally so much greater than the actual cost of becoming kosher.”
There’s a very broad range of what going kosher costs, explained Rabbi Moshe Elefant, OU Kosher’s COO, though he sidestepped offering any specific figures, per company policy.
Koegel points out that there’s a much larger universe of kosher consumers than just Orthodox Jews—other religious adherents, such as Muslims and Seventh Day Adventists, often have dietary rituals that dovetail with kashrut’s stringencies. And people who are lactose intolerant can check for the word “pareve” more easily than sorting through a dense listing of obscure ingredients. “Some people just see a kosher symbol as a sort of Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” said Koegel. “The buyers know there was another set of eyes watching that product like a hawk, and they feel better about its quality control.”
Koegel also fields phone calls from irate consumers calling—sometimes from supermarket aisles—to demand why a certain product isn’t kosher yet, despite the fact that there is a separate 24-hour hotline meant for those kind of calls. “A lot of times, I tell these people to call the company itself instead,” she said. “If enough people call a company and ask for kosher, it makes my jobs easier because a company will either reach out to me or be more receptive when I call them.”
Case in point: Jelly Belly, makers of the famous jelly beans, once had what Koegel called a “substandard” kosher certification—that is, it was certified kosher but not by an Orthodox agency, so Orthodox Jews wouldn’t trust it. Hearing over the years from customers who asked for a more widely accepted kosher symbol, Jelly Belly contacted the OU and worked with Koegel and others to replace some of the questionable additives in its jelly beans. “The company had to make a real monetary investment in refining the recipe and certain aspects of their factories, but it paid off,” said Koegel. “There were huge sales increases in certain regions that are Jewish strongholds: the Northeast, South Florida, and California.”
Koegel’s job is easier now than it would have been in, say, the early ’90s. The kosher industry has grown by leaps and bounds since then, and Menachem Lubinsky, president of Lubicom Marketing and the founder of Kosherfest, is its godfather. He was also Koegel’s first boss: After he turned a small Jewish expo show into a trade show for industry professionals that only featured kosher food in 1988, he needed someone to run it, and he hired Koegel, who had just earned her MBA from Pace University. “Phyllis instantly took charge and was a real professional,” said Lubinsky. “She’s a people person, and she doesn’t get frazzled easily. That’s important when you’re dealing with hundreds of exhibitors and each one’s issues and logistics. It was a huge challenge, which she handled very well.”
Koegel vividly remembers the demands of pulling the whole show together, especially as it grew from a small event with fewer than 70 booths and 500 visitors into a two-day mega-event with over 400 exhibitors and 7,000 visitors from 21 countries and 30 states. “I thrived on the pressure, and it was a real education for me understanding how to recruit the companies and the buyers for markets and just learning who’s who in the whole industry,” she said.
When Lubinsky brought in Portland, Maine-based Diversified Business Communications to run the show in 2002, he wanted to find something else for Koegel, who, in the meantime, had gone on to work at Sabra Foods and helped grow it from a $7 million business to the mammoth Pepsi-owned corporation that it is today. When he heard in 2006 that the OU was looking for someone to do public relations, he knew it wasn’t another rabbi they needed, but Koegel.
With the OU’s considerable stature in the kosher certification field, though, why is it necessary to have someone on staff to drum up new business? “In the past, we rarely did marketing, and it was almost a matter of pride for us,” explained Rabbi Menachem Genack, the soft-spoken CEO of OU Kosher who chatted with me as he checked his daily barrage of emails, many of which are from rabbinic field representatives—the mashgichim, or the foot soldiers around the globe ensuring each kosher-certified company is adhering to OU standards. “But while it’s true most companies who know about kosher also know about the OU symbol, there’s also a finite number of companies who know about kosher itself.”
Elefant added: “Some executives think they know about the concept and say, ‘Kosher, sure: Gimme two of them,’ ” as if “kosher” was a thing they could order. Despite its increasing prevalence in the world today, kosher still remains a vague, perplexing notion to many, especially outside major metropolitan areas where there are concentrated Jewish populations. Some still believe in the antiquated canard, perpetuated by white supremacist groups and other anti-Semites, that those mysterious kosher symbols funnel extra taxes into the hands of greedy Zionist Jews, and Koegel reports that many people she speaks with ask when the rabbi can visit and bless their products—isn’t that, they inquire, what being kosher entails? “I think it really helps that we have Phyllis to interface with some executives who know so little about kosher that they think rabbis have to do some kind of voodoo magic,” said Elefant. “The fact that we have Phyllis, who can go in to meet with them and be very personable and friendly, is very welcoming for them.”
Recently, Koegel has been working with various trade commissions from European countries to arrange for trade missions of U.S. food buyers to attend food trade events abroad, which she attends to market the potential of kosher certification. If a trade commission is convinced of the feasibility of certification, it will connect its country’s food production and manufacturing companies to Koegel so she can have direct access to markets she might not have been able to previously reach. A spring trip to Italy with the trade mission introduced Italian food manufacturers to the opportunities for export to the United States, which Koegel convinced them would be noticeably enhanced by obtaining OU kosher certification.
The money brought in by OU Kosher helps fund a variety of social and communal initiatives: NCSY, the national youth organization; public advocacy work, much of it addressing the exorbitant cost of Jewish day school; and Yachad, which assists those in the Jewish community with developmental disabilities. “I’m proud that my strengths can help so many,” Koegel said. But few know that it’s the OU’s kashrut division that funds those programs, and others. And even fewer people know of Koegel’s behind-the-scenes role.
But a few years ago, on a trip to Las Vegas with a friend, she spent a Shabbos meal with a rabbi who worked for NCSY’s West Coast Region, to which Las Vegas belongs. “When he found out what I do, he looked at me and said, ‘Without you, I wouldn’t have a job. Thank you,’ ” remembered Koegel. “It was the nicest thing I ever heard.”
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Tova Ross is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Huffington Post, and she is also a contributing blogger to Kveller.com. She lives in New Jersey with her family. Follow her on Twitter @tovamos
Tova Cohen is a fundraising communications professional and freelance writer. She lives with her family in New Jersey.