By Lorrie Baumann
As Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern are fond of pointing out to their television audiences, you can learn a lot about a society by tasting its food. Case in point: the Orthodox Jewish community in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. If you find yourself in Crown Heights, or even if you are just wondering about kosher food, Benz’s Food Products will be happy to serve up an education in what it means to be both “kosher” and “gourmet.”
Benz’s Gourmet, the brick and mortar shop that is the retail face of the family-owned kosher grocer, opened 11 years ago in Crown Heights, a neighborhood that has since become known as a case study in gentrification. As rising real estate prices have forced middle class families out of Manhattan, they have fled in large numbers to Brooklyn neighborhoods served by an efficient public transportation system that provides easy access to the island. The population shift has generated the concerns and conflicts characteristic of any rapid cultural change.
For Benz’s Gourmet, the changes in the neighborhood have created an opportunity to serve both the neighborhood’s native Orthodox Jewish residents and ex-Manhattanites with gourmet foods that meet the strictest of kosher requirements but also the educated tastes of adventurous eaters. Aside from a few staples that are carried as convenience items, every item in Benz’s Gourmet must pass both tests: it must meet the strictest of kosher standards, and it must be a gourmet product.
“If you’re looking for a gourmet dulce de leche that’s strictly kosher, you come to Benz’s. If you’re looking for a kosher goat yogurt, Benz’s carries it. If you’re looking for truffles, Benz’s carries it. We also offer a large assortment of imported cheeses, imported olives and beers. Of course, all strictly kosher,” said Dobi Raskin, the daughter in the family that owns and operates Benz’s. Dobi does some of pretty much everything that has to be done in the store and the wholesale operation that stands behind it. “Just because you’re kosher and Orthodox doesn’t mean you don’t want a truffle mac and cheese. Just because you keep kosher shouldn’t mean that you don’t get to taste the finer things in life.”
The business was started in 1976 by Dobi Raskin’s father, Benz Raskin. Benz is still active in the business along with Dobi’s mother and her three brothers.
Benz started out making classic frozen gefilte fish logs, distinguished from competing products by the high quality of a product made with only fresh fish and fresh produce when other companies were making it with frozen fish. “We started really small, making small batches,” Dobi says. At first, the product was sold only to local families, with Benz delivering it himself in a little red pickup truck. “We’re in Brooklyn, the home of many Orthodox Jews,” Dobi says. “We ourselves are Orthodox Jews.”
As the Benz’s gefilte fish became more popular, Benz started selling it wholesale to institutional buyers serving the Orthodox community. He then began adding more groceries to his product line. Today, the business sells groceries through the Internet as well as in a brick-and-mortar store, and the company’s patriarch has become a mascot for the neighborhood. The shop is only about 20 feet by 100 feet, so it’s not hard to find him when he is there. “Our hearts are bigger than our store,” Dobi says. “He’s sort of an icon. People come in just to say hello to him. He loves it.”
Benz started the business because he saw that the people in his neighborhood were becoming more interested in some of the gourmet food products that they were hearing about from the Food Network and other influences. They wanted to try the new specialty foods, but they were not interested in abandoning religious requirements for how food is to be raised, processed and served. “That’s where Benz saw the need,” Dobi says. “It requires a lot more research and care to make sure that the products are up to the kosher standards of the community, since there are many different kosher certifications. If there’s a product with a kosher certification you don’t recognize, you have to do due diligence to make sure that it’s something we can carry … Just because something has a symbol doesn’t mean that it’s going to fly with us.”
Benz’s now carries a wide variety of refrigerated and frozen products, dry products and other specialty groceries, all with the endorsement of rabbinic authorities that it has been produced according to strict kosher law. Dobi does a great deal of the research herself to be sure that each product meets the company’s standards. “It’s quite astonishing how much time it takes to establish that a product is kosher, and if so, under which certification,” she says. “That’s what makes us unique, that we take the time.”
When customers ask for an item that’s not in the shop’s stock, Dobi seeks out suppliers who can provide a kosher gourmet product. “If you’re looking for strictly kosher goat yogurt, Benz’s will find it and bring it in. If it’s a popular item, it becomes a regular. We’ll stock it,” she says. “If it’s available on the market, we’ll try to bring it in for you.”
Finding a gourmet item with the proper kosher certification can be a challenge, and Dobi is particularly proud that she was able to find truffle products in response to a customer request. She now gets them from an Israeli company that sources them in Europe, and Benz’s now offers minced truffles, truffle sea salt and even truffle oil. “We were able to bring in the product line. That was a good one,” Dobi says. “You keep the customer happy. They keep you happy. It’s a nice cycle.”
In their eagerness to try new gourmet products, Benz’s customers have not forgotten the traditional foods they grew up with. The company still sells its classic frozen gefilte fish logs and still takes great pride in offering a gourmet product that meets customers’ dietary needs. “The fresh fish and fresh produce that goes into the product put it a step above its competitors, Dobi says. “Just because we eat gefilte fish doesn’t mean it has to taste like cardboard.”
Benz’s also imports trays of herring from Europe and offers them both in the tray and in almost 30 different preparations that combine the herring with ingredients like wasabi, scallions, jalapeños and habanero peppers. Some customers like to buy the herring already prepared, and some like to buy the plain filets and take them home to experiment with new flavor combinations. Either way, Benz’s is ready to serve.
“Our herring filets are probably the best on the market. The quality just can’t be beat. It’s just nice, buttery, good texture,” Dobi says. The herring filets are, like Dobi herself, named after Benz’s mother, so customers come into the shop and ask for Dobis. “I’m pretty famous now, I guess,” she says.
The Dobi case is a popular gathering spot for the community as they come into the store to shop for Sabbath meals, and the various preparations for the herring have become a running topic of discussion among the Orthodox community, where you can often tell which synagogue an individual attended last week by what kind of herring they’re talking about, Dobi says.
“People are expanding their horizons. The market is so vast and there are so many options that people are able to eat a gourmet diet and still adhere to the strict kosher requirements,” says Dobi. “There’s a young community here that’s blossoming that wants the better things in life, and we appreciate that we’re able to offer it to them.”
Frog’s Breath IPA from Coronado Brewing Company has a bright citrus flavor derived from spices, kaffir lime leaf, lemon and orange zest. This unfiltered IPA was adapted from a home-brew recipe developed by two local Coronado homebrewers who are also retired Navy frogmen. Once the beer went on draught at the Coronado pub and restaurant, it was an immediate hit.
Frog’s Breath IPA specs:
Style: India Pale Ale (unfiltered)
Bitterness: 50 IBU
Package: 22 ounce bottles, draught 1/6 bbl and 1/2 bbl
Release: April 2014 launch through August 2014
Malts: 2-row, C-15, Carahell
Hops: Centennial, Columbus, Wakatu, Sorachi Ace
Yeast: Cal Ale
Where to find it:
Frog’s Breath IPA will be sold throughout Canada and 15 states: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington.
Kirin has partnered with celebrity Chef and Top Chef contestant, Candice Kumai, to share Japanese-style beer pairings with foodies, as traditional Japanese and Asian-fusion cuisines continue to grow in popularity. The partnership kicks-off in earnest at the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., where Kirin and Kumai will offer Japanese-style beers and a special frosty Japanese serving method to attendees.
With Japanese roots and expertise in Asian cuisine, Kumai will serve as the Kirin brand ambassador, bringing the pure, clean taste of the Japanese-style lager to beer drinkers at the festival and beyond.
“As a chef, it’s important to select beverages that will highlight your recipes,” said Kumai. “With rich flavor and a deep, smooth finish, Kirin Ichiban complements refined traditional Japanese cuisine, the bold tastes of modern Asian-fusion food and other flavor-forward dishes.”
Throughout the year, Kumai will share special recipes with Kirin fans on Facebook.com/KirinUSA and continue to make appearances with Kirin throughout the year. At the National Cherry Blossom Festival, Kumai will be dishing up Kirin samples, pairing tips and Japanese drinking customs. Kumai is scheduled to make appearances at the Festival’s Grand Sake Tasting on April 3 and its Southwest Waterfront Fireworks Festival on April 5.
While beer drinkers have long-loved enjoying Kirin at Asian restaurants, the National Cherry Blossom Festival will offer of-age beer drinkers a new opportunity to enjoy several varieties of Kirin and a unique, frozen preparation of its signature brand. Selection to include:
“People are expanding their culinary horizons and discovering a wide range of dishes and flavors that are inspired by Asian cuisine,” said Michael Lourie, brand manager, Kirin Beer. “Partnering with Candice is an opportunity to excite beer drinkers about pairing their favorite foods with Kirin Ichiban and Kirin Light at restaurants, and trying the beers with both familiar and new recipes at home.”
For more information on Kirin or to find it close to home, visit Facebook.com/KirinUSA. For more information on the National Cherry Blossom festival, visit nationalcherryblossomfestival.org.
By Lucas Witman
In 2002, WineStyles’ founder Brigitte Baker was enjoying a casual backyard barbecue with friends, when the conversation turned to wine. Baker was surprised to find her friends unaware of the wealth of high quality, low cost wines available today. It was in this moment that Baker first got the idea to open a shop that featured reasonably priced wines and educated consumers on how to get the most for their money when it comes to the sought after libation. A little over a decade later, WineStyles has evolved to include 26 stores in 12 states across the country.
In 2012, Iowa-based WineStyles franchisees Bryan and Andrea McGinness took over for Baker, when they purchased the company. The pair immediately set about reinventing the store concept and diversifying the product offerings. “We’ve grown and expanded over the past year and a half, going into gourmet foods and cheeses and chocolates, all of the things that pair nicely with wine,” said Bryan. “The whole rebranding of the company has been very important to us.”
Today, WineStyles customers will still find an expansive wine selection, but they can also shop for cheese, specialty food, chocolate, coffee, tea, beer, accessories and more. The company’s gourmet food offerings have been instrumental in bringing a whole new customer base into its stores. Shoppers are now loading up their carts with products from some of the most popular specialty food companies in the business, including Sweetshop USA, Bissinger’s, The French Farm, Robert Rothshild Farms, Gourmet du Village, Rishi Tea, American Vintage Biscuits and Jennifer’s Homemade.
WineStyles also treats shoppers to a variety of specialty prepared foods, as well, some made with gourmet ingredients that are available in store. Prepared food offerings include pizzettes, olives and cheese boards, and the menu is expanding. In many of the stores, customers can also enjoy wine served by the glass.
Wine may still be the star attraction at WineStyles, but it is not the only beverage getting customers’ attentions. The newly reinvented WineStyles stores are also focusing on offering extensive selections of craft beers as well. “The craft beer has brought in a totally new customer base,” said Bryan. “We keep about 200 different craft beers in the store at any given time, and they rotate seasonally.”
WineStyles Tasting Station sets itself apart from other wine shops in a number of ways, but the most striking may be way that the wine itself is merchandised in store. Whereas most wine shops divide up their selection based on varietal or regionality, WineStyles opts to organize its bottles by style. When it comes to whites, customers can choose from crisp, silky or rich offerings. The store’s reds are broken up into fruity, mellow and bold bottles.
WineStyles is also unique in its focus on offering its customers locally sourced regional selections. Each store brings in craft beers from local breweries, and stores located in wine growing regions also have selections of local wines. “Different stores around the country are offering different beers. Craft beer is still so regional that there is a different flare in different parts of the country.” The McGinnesses’ Des Moines store, for example, treats its customers to Toppling Goliath’s Tsunami Pale Ale, Madhouse Brewery’s Imperial Red and Confluence Brewing Company’s Des Moines IPA.
Reaching out to wine aficionados and newcomers alike, WineStyles’ popular wine club is a great way to broaden one’s knowledge and try some great new bottles on a regular basis. “We’re the only wine club with a clubhouse,” said Andrea. By signing up for the monthly wine club, customers will take home two new bottles of wine each month. WineStyles also offers a variety of similar clubs, where members have the opportunity to try new beers, chocolates, cheeses, teas and coffees.
Catering to a diverse clientele with varying degrees of wine knowledge, WineStyles strives to staff its stores with knowledgeable experts in the field, trained to guide customers through their purchase. However, for Bryan and Andrea, personality is just as important as expertise when it comes to bringing new staff into the business. “When we hire, obviously we want them to have some knowledge,” said Andrea. “Customer service is huge for us. The training is geared toward customer service…but personality is also key.”
When reinventing the WineStyles concept, the most important thing for Bryan and Andrea was to create stores where customers felt free to browse the shelves for an extended period of time, perusing bottles, learning about wine and picking up a few things along the way. To get the full experience of the store, the pair hopes that customers will hang around for at least 45 minutes or more.
This is what ultimately sets WineStyles apart from other wine and specialty food shops around the country: a welcoming atmosphere where customers feel free to shop, drink, snack and peruse the products at their leisure.
“What sets us apart is the look feel and fit of our stores. We are set up like an old world wine cellar where customers can come and try wines from all over the world,” said Bryan. “The fit and finish of the store is very cozy.”
To learn more about WineStyles Tasting Station or to view a complete list of stores, visit www.winestyles.com.
Beer, bacon and music have long been essential ingredients for an ideal day, according to the organizers of the Beer Bacon Music festival coming up in Frederick, Md.
Taking place at the Fairgrounds on May 17 and 18, Beer Bacon Music will provide attendees with 150+ craft beer varieties from which to choose, a two-ton all-you-can-eat bacon bar including 50+ creative bacon dishes and a rockin’ band every hour, on the hour.
“This truly is the first event of its kind, anywhere in the world,” says Kenneth MacFawn, Beer Bacon Music festival owner. “It’s the perfect place for people to celebrate three of life’s greatest pleasures, try new beer in an unintimidating environment, get inspiration for new culinary endeavors, and sample some of the best bands on the East Coast.”
With three appealing themes and a multitude of attractions, Beer Bacon Music offers enjoyment for even the most discerning palate, the most astute music connoisseur, even the most competitive home brewer, MacFawn says.
Beer – Enter Beer Bacon Music’s Brewer’s $6K Homebrew Competition to win the world’s largest prize in the world’s largest home brewing competition by competing in one or more of 10 competition style categories judged by BCJP officials. Included with admission for 21+ attendees is a sampling glass in which 100+ different beer varieties can be sampled from 30+ breweries. Beginners and craft beer aficionados alike can talk beer shop with brewery staff, and watch live demonstrations of the latest and greatest home brew equipment.
Bacon – With the price of admission, enjoy a two-ton all-you-can-eat Bacon Bar containing sliced bacon prepared in a wide variety of flavors including peppered, glazed, maple, and more. Also available for purchase will be intriguing gourmet bacon dishes served a la carte, and an abundance of cuisine from around the world including vegetarian and other options made available by 15+ on-site food truck vendors.
Music – Over the two-day festival, there will be 10 live bands on stage — a new band every hour on the hour, following the Homebrew Competition winner announcements. To help ensure there will be something for everyone’s ears to enjoy, the festival will feature many styles of music.
Tickets for the event are on sale now, with the first 1,000 offered at the reduced rate of just $39 for a 1-day pass, or $65 for a weekend pass, limited to 500. Ticket options are also available for those wanting to enter the homebrew competition or attend as a non-drinker.
For more information or to enter the Brewer’s $6K today, visit: http://beerbaconmusic.com.