Tuesday, September 25, 2012
The rabbi was coming at 6 am, and he was bringing his blowtorch.
I think I had been at my job for a week when people had first started asking, "Are you going to be Kosher?" Well, now, that was a good question. There's a sizeable Jewish community in town. There's a local organization dedicated to helping people make that happen. Oh yeah, and I'm making bagels. The first problem, though, was where I was making them. A kitchen space that enjoys a wide range of clients including some serious pork people? Yeah, not so kosher.
But then we started planning out our own space - we were already getting too big to comfortably share the freezer, the walk-in and if we wanted to continue that growth, our best option was to get the space next to the kitchen and build a bakery. If we were going to do that, then, sure, why not go kosher?
So what did that mean, exactly? Well, first it meant that our Kosher certification representative came to visit the kitchen on the inevitable day there was a big pork photo shoot going on. Seriously. We're talking sides of pig laid out across three tables in all their glory. Because that's the way my life goes. I respectfully did not offer to shake hands (Thank you, Dan, for teaching me this etiquette tidbit years ago!) we snagged my boss and went to sit somewhere pork-free. Then, we learned what we needed to do.
One part was paperwork. We'd already done quite a bit, chasing down Ks and circled Us on labels and considering substitutes where there were no symbols. I heard about disreputable merchants who use false symbols and very reputable ones that don't see a need to go through the process. I learned why spice blends are more suspect than the spices themselves and how an initially Kosher product that gets repackaged by a food distributor means we better make sure the distributor is certified. Better to go to the source. Also, all those crazy Asian ingredients in our Miso Soy Ginger bagel? Mostly not Kosher. We would have to make, boil and bake those in the other kitchen. We had to track down actual certificates for all of those products, and submit our formulas. I wondered, briefly, if this meant that some rabbinical council had the formula for Kosher Coke somewhere. I bet they had to sign something.
Then there was equipment. We have an advantage in having a separate kitchen, in that we can still make things for the shop with bacon and sausage (only the bagels are certified), but it meant we had to have absolute separation between all of our equipment - bowls, sheetpans, knives, bench scrapers - and the kitchen's tools. So I dremmeled my way through the wee hours. In the morning the rabbi brought his blowtorch to cleanse the items that had been used before, and to get a complete list of all of our equipment to keep on record. They count the sheetpans. Seriously.
So, beginning just before the High Holidays, we became a Kosher bakery. We get weekly inspections, usually during the wee hours. I consider it a compliment that after the inspection they often ask for bagels. I've had great conversations with some of my farmer's market friends who produce Kosher items. "Oh, did you work with Tuvia? Tuvia's great!" "Oh, we worked with Tuvia, too!" We can't control for where knives in the shop have been, so our qualifying bagels are only certified kosher in their whole, uncut state which has caused some giggles from our customers.
In the end, was it worth the time, the expense? The little rules that we have to keep an eye on, the paperwork we need to process every time we buy bowls or want to add a new flavor? For me it's not about their religion, or my lack of religion. It's about wanting to bring this great stuff we make to as many people as possible. We didn't have to change our recipes, just substitute one product for another and now there's a whole community of people who can try one of my pumpernickel bagels. That makes it worth it for me.